INTERNATIONAL NEWS - French people went to the polls wearing face masks Sunday in the final round of municipal elections expected to yield a rebuke for President Emmanuel Macron's party.
Amid persistent fears of coronavirus contagion, just over 15 percent of voters had turned out by midday - fewer even than four hours into the first election round on March 15 marked by a record 55-percent abstention rate.
Polls opened for 12 hours for some 16.5 million eligible voters at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in nearly 5,000 cities and towns, about 15 percent of the country's municipal councils, where the first election round did not yield a decisive outcome.
Power remains up for grabs in the key cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg.
The opening round was held just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, scheduled for March 22, was put off after France went into lockdown.
A new date was set after the government's scientific council said it was possible to hold another round safely, but voters are required to wear face masks and were urged to bring their own pens.
Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors, and plexiglass screens were erected between them at several polling stations, which also provided sanitising hand gel.
"If one can go shopping, why not go vote?" said an undeterred Martine Legros, 67, who cast her ballot in Dijon in eastern France.
Analysts expect the election to confirm that Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party - founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win - has failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.
The party made lacklustre showings in March - notably in Paris where Macron's candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.
Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is forecast to hold on to the capital.
"The problem is that the LREM is a new party that has no local roots and is struggling to impose itself as a (political) force," analyst Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.
He predicted that disillusionment with the party may put people off going out to vote in already complicated circumstances.
With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the pandemic.
The country went into lockdown on March 17, just two days after the first election round that critics say should not have been held. Voting started just hours after the government ordered all restaurants and bars closed.
Most restrictions have now been eased.
During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe - an unshowy technocratic - saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, whose policies have been the target of months of protests and strikes.
Macron's critics say he is a president of the rich and out of touch with ordinary people.
Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM Sunday could see Macron announce a cabinet reshuffle, possibly axing Philippe, who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.
Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.
Firing Philippe would allow Macron "to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the 'second act' of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis," said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron's main challenger is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally.
Despite an abysmal performance in the last presidential elections, France's Socialists are expected Sunday to keep key regional centres, including Paris, where three women are vying for the top job.
There will also be close attention on the Europe Ecology – The Greens party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.
In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to take France's second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.
For Le Pen's National Rally, the big prize would be Perpignan in the south, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995.
The only region of France not voting Sunday is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is deemed too active to open polling stations.