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Voting in France: Paper ballots, cast in person; no machines

PARIS (AP) — French voters in Sunday’s presidential election will use the same system that’s been used for generations: paper ballots that are cast in person and counted by hand. Despite periodic calls for more flexibility or modernization, France doesn’t do mail-in voting, early voting or use voting machines en masse like the United States. President Emmanuel Macron is the clear front-runner, though an unprecedented proportion of people say they are unsure who they will vote for or whether they will vote at all.

PAPER BALLOTS

Voters must be at least 18 years old. About 48.7 million French are registered on the electoral rolls of the place where they live.

Voters make their choices in a booth, with the curtains closed, then place their ballot in an envelope that is then put into a transparent ballot box. They must show photo identification and sign a document, next to their name, to complete the process.

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Volunteers count the ballots one by one. Officials will then use state-run software to register and report results more efficiently.

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But legally only the paper counts. If a result is challenged, the paper ballots are recounted manually.

PROXY VOTING

People who can’t go to the polls for various reasons can authorize someone else to vote for them.

To do so, a voter must fill out a form ahead of time and bring it to a police station. A person can be the proxy of no more than one voter living in France — and potentially one additional person living abroad.

Up to 7% of people voted by proxy in the last presidential election five years ago.

NO MAIL-IN VOTING, RARE MACHINE-VOTING

Mail-in voting was banned in 1975 amid fears of potential fraud.

Machine-voting was allowed as an experiment starting in 2002, but the purchase of new machines has been frozen since 2008 due to security concerns. Only a few dozens towns still use them.

Last year, Macron’s centrist government tried to pass an amendment to allow early voting by machine to encourage electoral participation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate, led by a conservative majority, rejected the measure, arguing it was announced with too little notice and was not solid enough legally.

COVID-19 MEASURES

Most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in the country. Though the number of cases is significantly lower than earlier this year, infections have been creeping up again for several weeks, reaching over 130,000 new confirmed cases each day.

People who test positive for the virus can go to the polls. They are strongly advised to wear a mask and follow other health guidelines.

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Voters can wash their hands at polling stations, which will also have hand sanitizer available. Equipment will be frequently cleaned. Each voting station will let fresh air in for at least 10 minutes every hour.

TWO-ROUND SYSTEM

France’s presidential election is organized in two rounds. Twelve candidates met the conditions for Sunday’s vote, including Macron and French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, his main challenger.

In theory, someone could win outright by garnering more than 50% of the vote in the first round, but that has never happened in France.

In practice, the two top contenders qualify for a runoff, with the winner chosen on April 24.


President Emmanuel Macron said Friday he has no fear of losing France’s presidential election despite far-right rival Marie Le Pen narrowing the gap in opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote.

“I have the spirit of conquest rather than the spirit of defeat,” Macron said in an interview with RTL radio on the final day of campaigning. But he cautiously added, “Nothing is ever a given.”

Le Pen, running in her third presidential race, has consistently placed second behind frontrunner Macron in polls. She appeared to close the gap even further according to a BVA poll published showing her just 3% behind Macron’s 26%. Other polls have given a 5-6 point difference between the two.

If the polls mirror election results, Macron and Le Pen would repeat the 2017 scenario, squaring off in a second round Apr. 24. Macron won by a landslide five years ago.

Le Pen has expended much energy to take the edge off her National Rally party in order to make it more appealing to voters. She has softened her image even more and made purchasing power the centerpiece of her campaign, but hasn’t given up what she’s best known for – stopping the “migratory submersion” and fighting radical Islamists.

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“If Emmanuel Macron had enriched the country, excuse me but we wouldn’t be talking about purchasing power,” Le Pen said at her final rally Thursday evening in the town of Perpignan whose far-right mayor is her former companion Louis Aliot.

Macron cited his presidential duties, notably the war in Ukraine, to justify his absence during much of the campaign, which has been criticized by other candidates.

Turnout could be the deciding factor in the the election and could harm Le Pen’s chances most because her voter base is composed of voters who tend to stay at home on election day.

In Perpignan, Le Pen sought to rally supporters including those mulling to cast their vote for novice far-right candidate Eric Zemmour, a former TV pundit whose bid for the presidency is based entirely on the migration issue. He stands in fourth place in the polls, behind far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“I will give the country back to the French people,” Le Pen said. “It will be up to the French people to decide who is worthy of becoming French.”

She also appealed to supporters to cast their ballots.

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