The inhabitants of Saint-Brice-Courcelles, in the Marne, still can’t believe it. Fifteen days after being triumphantly re-elected in the first round of municipal elections, their outgoing mayor, a local figure, Alain Lescouët, 74, died of coronavirus. For his deputy, Alain Lalouette, there is no doubt that the elected official contracted the virus on election day, Sunday March 15, while he was holding a polling station with him. “Even if we had put in place the government prescriptions for the voting booths and the distances, we were very basicly equipped,” he told Radio France’s investigation cell. “We did the elections with our faces uncovered. For the people who ran the offices, it was like in 14-18 on Chemin des Dames, we were on the front line!”
As a result, the deputy experienced the first symptoms of Covid-19 in the days following the election. But he is not the only one. “About ten out of nineteen people from the municipal council were also infected. All of them participated in the poll,” he said.
Six elected officials contaminated during the count
In the Oise, in Tracy-Le-Mont, the deputy mayor, Jean-Jacques Zalay, 67, who was swept away on March 31. He was allegedly contaminated during the municipal campaign. “The week before the first round, we had distributed leaflets explaining our program to the population. He was quite tired, but I never thought about the coronavirus,” recalls Mayor Sylvie Valente-le-Hir. The elected representative maintains that the recommendations of the government were followed well on the day of the vote: “We had gel and gloves, the identity documents were not affected … But …”
It was just then that the elected official noticed that her deputy, Jean-Jacques Zalay, was sweating, as well as another adviser who had held a polling station with him. “Then I thought of the coronavirus,” she says, upset. A few days later, she added, “other members of the municipal council who participated in the counting with my deputy were sick, as well as people who came to help us.” All fell ill, about six people, including a city councilor who was nearly hospitalized.
A scenario that occurs in all regions
These elected officials are not isolated cases. According to our colleagues from France Bleu, the mayor of Beurey-Bauguay (Côte-d´Or) died ten days after the first round. In the Haut-Rhin, Jean-Marie Zoellé, 75, re-elected mayor of Saint-Louis died shortly after the vote. Impossible to know the real number of these elected victims.
The association of mayors of France claims to have had no specific feedback. Same response to the Interior Ministry. But we find identical situations in many other municipalities. In the Territoire de Belfort, Corinne Coudereau, outgoing mayor of Valdoie and candidate for re-election was tested positive on March 9. She was reportedly contaminated by a resident who came to see her at her field office, after having participated in the religious rally in Mulhouse, one of the centers of the epidemic.
In the North, at Coudekerque-Branche, several assessors who ran polling stations fell ill, and 17 elected officials were infected. In Pas-de-Calais, Hanzin-Saint-Aubin, David Hecq, the battered outgoing mayor, was diagnosed along with one of his assistants. Both had maintained a polling station on polling day. Same thing in Billom in Auvergne, where an assessor was contaminated and hospitalized, according to our colleagues from France Bleu Auvergne.
In Caluire-et-Cuire, in the metropolis of Lyon, Claudio Parisi was to preside over a polling station on Sunday, March 15, but he resisted. “When I saw that there were six offices (instead of three usually) with at least three people per office, that is 18 people in a small room of about thirty square meters, I refused to stay, considering the health risk. I ironed a few hours later. It was full, and the distance measurements were not respected. “
Among the municipalities most emblematic of this contamination, we can still cite Compiègne, in the Oise. In the week following the first round, three elected officials and three city hall employees were diagnosed positive. If all are healed today, they have one thing in common: they were present at the evening organized on the evening of the first round.
Meanwhile, before the cameras, the mayor urged the population to protect themselves from the virus. In a video published on the city’s Facebook account, and taken up by Oise Hebdo, where we see behind the mayor the elected officials kissing and toasting. “The barrier gestures have disappeared. No one was thinking about the coronavirus,” recalls Frederika Guillaume. “What we don’t know,” she adds, “is that the chief of municipal police, who is participating in the evening, will be tested positive the next day. That the chief of staff, also present in the room, will be tested positive the following week, as well as the director of communication of the city, as well as the assistant to culture, and the deputy Pierre Vatin “.
Contaminations also during the campaign
Other contaminations of elected officials took place during the campaign. We see it in particular in Crépy-en-Valoy, still in the Oise (the department where one died the first Frenchman who had not gone to a country at risk). Long before the first round, on March 1, the outgoing mayor, Bruno Fortier, tested positive. The campaign was then suspended, the town confined, schools, cinemas, public places closed, long before the rest of France.
According to the Regional Health Agency, he could have been infected in mid-February, during a council of elected officials from the community of communes. He will therefore be confined until the first round of the inclusive election. But before being tested, Bruno Portier encountered, and therefore potentially contaminated, nearly a hundred people: “I regularly saw the staff, the elected officials,” he explains today. “Everyone was confined, the director general of the services of the town hall, the administrative staff on the ground floor of the town hall (around thirty people) and also all my assistants (eight) as a precaution.” The director general of the Regional Health Agency and the prefect of the Oise, who had participated in a crisis meeting with Bruno Fortier in late February, will also be confined.
Added to this is the case of an assessor who held a polling station during the first round of the elections in Crépy-en-Valois. He explained to the Radio France investigation cell that a week after the vote, he felt digestive problems and had nausea. “My doctor told me he had quite a few cases like mine and he wondered if I hadn’t been infected during the first round. The protocol was respected, but the distances cannot not be when a voter puts his ballot in the ballot box. He’s less than a meter from us. “
An order to ensure continuity of services
Even if it is impossible to quantify the number of mayors who were victims of the election, the number of elected officials concerned was such that the government had to issue an ordinance on April 8 in order to ensure continuity of services. “When the mayor’s seat becomes vacant, there is already a system,” says Maître Juliette Viehl, lawyer in local government law. “It is the first deputy who takes over. But normally, the interim is fifteen days before a new mayor is re-elected. With this order, this period is extended until the end of the state of health. “
This new text made it possible to unblock the situations in the most affected town halls. This is the case in Saint-Brice-Courcelles. “Thanks to this order, explains Alain Lalouette, the former first deputy who has acted since the death of the outgoing mayor, we have started everything again. We can at least manage the all-rounder. Because the decisions important, it will be the future mayor who will take them when he is elected. ” Alain Lalouette, manages until a lasting solution is found. He retired to retire and never imagined replacing the late “Mayor”.
The role of scientists
Why then, under these conditions, did the government maintain the first round, even when it closed bars, restaurants, theaters and cinemas? To understand this, we have to go back to what was going on behind the scenes at the Élysée Palace on March 12. On that day, the ten members of the Covid-19 scientific council arrived at 10:30 a.m. They sit on the same side of the large table of the Council of Ministers, facing the President of the Republic and his collaborators. They explain to Emmanuel Macron why the new coronavirus risks clogging up health services. France does not yet realize what is happening, they say to the President.
At this moment, the latter is shaken. It does not exclude a postponement of the vote. At 1 p.m., the experts do not leave the palace. They are provided with meal trays, after which they find themselves behind closed doors to answer the following question: are there scientific arguments arguing in favor of the abolition of the first round of municipal elections?
Scientists debate while Emmanuel Macron consults the presidents of the National Assembly and the Senate, as well as other political figures who plead for the majority of the elections. The discussion is frank, “cash”, we were told. Some intervene spontaneously. Others are asking for the floor. President Jean-François Delfraissy ensures that everyone can clarify their thinking. He is looking for a consensus which will gradually emerge around two arguments.
On the one hand, the experts members of the medical profession consider that from the moment when the population is allowed to exit while respecting barrier measures, there is no scientific argument allowing to consider that the first round would worsen the situation, provided that social distancing, absence of contact, a line dedicated to people at risk, and the presence of hydroalcoholic gel are imposed.
The risk of a political and media earthquake
But another argument, much less scientific, will also be advanced. It is mainly developed by the group’s social scientists (anthropologists and sociologists in particular). They argue that a cancellation of the first round of the elections would risk creating a political and media earthquake that would divert the attention of the French from the threat hanging over them. If the press headlined the confiscation of the ballot by the head of state, the controversy would swell, they explain, the opposition would seize it, and the messages of mobilization of opinion on around the Covid-19 would become inaudible .
At 4.30 p.m., Édouard Philippe joined the group. He is accompanied by the Minister of Health, Olivier Veran, and Alexis Kohler, the Secretary General of the Elysée Palace. The committee then informed him of its opinion. At 6:30 p.m., the information goes back to Emmanuel Macron. In his live address at 8 pm, the head of state will say: “I asked the scientists about the municipal elections. They consider that there is nothing to prevent the French, even the most vulnerable from going to the ballot boxes “. That evening, he added: “I trust the mayors and the good citizenship of each of you. I also know that the town halls and the state services have organized things well.”
On March 16, he will thank “the state services, the town halls, all the town hall departments, all those who held the polling stations and who enabled the organization of this poll.” Elected officials and voters were however contaminated that day. But within the scientific council, we assume. “We started from the principle that the elected officials were responsible people”, justifies one of its members today. “Politicians are committed to running a commune. They hold important positions. They are supposed to put in place and enforce the necessary measures. If they have not done so, it is worrying.”