With elbow taps and fist bumps, French elections candidates defy coronavirus

By John Irish and Noemie Olive

PARIS (Reuters) – Elbow to elbow, foot to foot or the occasional Namaste is how some candidates in France’s local elections are greeting voters across cities, but for others direct contact is too valuable to give up even as the highly contagious coronavirus runs amok.

Even after Italy went into lockdown and countries from Japan to Greece shut down schools, the French government has publicly said it wants to press ahead with the national vote for control of France’s 35,000 town halls.

But the virus has presented candidates with a dilemma: how to rally support when there are restrictions on public gatherings and French people have been told not to shake hands or greet with a kiss?

“We can’t shake hands,” said one Parisian as he greeted Agnes Buyzn, President Emmanuel Macron’s candidate for Paris City Hall, in the capital’s chic 6th arrondissement.

Parachuted in at the last minute by Macron to replace the previous candidate who pulled out after a sex scandal, Buzyn responds offering her elbow instead.

“It’s a different contact, but we still need to have friendly exchanges, so you use your elbow, say hello like in Asia or give a kick. It creates a bond during a campaign that frankly resembles nothing like in the past,” Buzyn told Reuters.

Countrywide, numerous candidates have taken to social media to reach their audience, but street campaigning remains the preferred way of getting their message across.

In the capital’s 18th district, best-known for the Sacre-Coeur basilica which sits atop Montmartre, former French international soccer star Vikash Dhorasso struggled to keep his hands to himself.

Running in an election for the first time and attempting to win the district’s town hall for the far-left La France Insoumise party, Dhorasso has put the coronavirus to the back of his mind as he seeks to show that politics is not just for career politicians.

Handing out fliers, the former Paris St Germain and AC Milan player cannot help but fist bump, handshake and offer selfies as local constituents welcome him.

“I have real trouble not having contact with people. I was a footballer, people recognize me, speak to me. It’s super friendly when people are like that with me so I can’t not shake their hand,” he told Reuters. “I can’t do that. It’s not possible. I don’t even think about it.”

The weekly Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Thursday reported that Macron’s government was consulting parliament about a possible postponement of the vote. The leader of the Senate denied the account.

While parts of the public worry the vote could accelerate the spread of the virus, others are adamant that democracy must trump health fears.

“I hope that there won’t be too many people that stay at home because of the virus,” said pensioner Daniele Ilacqua. “It would be a shame to eclipse what’s at stake. There is a threat that will pass, but if we don’t vote in the election we’ll be stuck with a person who we don’t want for years.”

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Peter Graff)