Elections to the Senate, the upper house of the French legislature, were held on Sunday. The Senate is an indirectly elected body, though the electorate is large, mainly comprising local councillors and there are many of them. Since recent changes, the mandate of a Senator lasts six years and one half of the senate is elected every three years.
In 2011, the left gained a slim majority in the Senate. This was first ever left-wing majority in the upper house since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The left has traditionally been disadvantaged at Senate elections, because there are many councillors and, hence electors, from rural areas who have tended to support the right. While the left enjoyed a slim majority after 2011, the government did not. The left’s majority included the Communist, Republican, and Citizens group, which included representatives from left-wing parties not in the government. Moreover, the majority also included the Greens. However, they left the governing coalition with the Socialists in March 2014. Partly because the government of socialist President François Hollande never enjoyed a majority even when the Greens were in office, it was defeated a number of times in the Senate after it took office in 2012.
Following the election at the weekend the state of the parties is roughly as follows:
- UMP (right-wing opposition) – 145 seats (+12)
- UDI (centre-right opposition) – 38 seats (+6)
- Socialists (government) – 112 seats (-16)
- RDSE (government) – 12 seats (-7)
- Greens (opposition) – 10 seats (no change)
- Communists and left opposition – 17 seats (-3)
- National Front (extreme right) – 2 seats (+2)
So, as expected, the left has lost its overall majority. Moreover, the Socialist group is weakened further. This was expected, but it will make life for the government of PM Manuel Valls more difficult. Not entirely unexpectedly, but newsworthy nonetheless, was the arrival for the first time of the National Front (FN) in the Senate. One of the noteworthy elements of the election of their two Senators is that they received the votes of electors who were not representatives of the FN on local councils. This is perhaps a sign that the FN is becoming more mainstream, less untouchable.
These two lessons of the Senate elections confirm general trends. The popularity of President Hollande is still hovering around an all-time low at less than 20%. He has become a figure of ridicule. This is being felt within the Socialist party itself. The President and PM are having difficulty keeping their majority together in the National Assembly. It is not unrealistic to think that the government may lose its majority there in the coming months. At the same time, the National Front is polling very well. There is no chance, as yet, of its candidate being elected President of the Republic in 2017. However, there is every chance that the candidate, which is almost certainly going to be the party leader, Marine Le Pen, will win through to the second ballot.
The prospect of a weak PS and an unelectable FN is one of the reasons why former president Nicolas Sarkozy made a political come back only last week. If he were to stand as the UMP’s candidate in 2017, he would be well placed to win again, though the same could be said about any UMP candidate at the moment, notably Sarkozy’s main rivals on the right, former PMs Alain Juppé and François Fillon. Sarkozy’s chances are not unrealistic. Some of his judicial issues have gone away at least for the time being. He is also a dogged political fighter with a history of reinventing himself and identifying popular (or populist) issues.
As things stand, the FN will continue to make headlines over the next couple of years, but the significant battle is the one that is taking place within the UMP.