Shock for Sarkozy as left takes control of senate

 

FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy held talks with senior ministers yesterday to assess the damage from senate elections that gave the opposition control of the upper house for the first time in 50 years.

Led by the Socialist Party, the left claimed a major symbolic victory by wresting control of the senate – a bastion of the right since the current French Republic was founded in 1958 – with a two-seat majority.

One of the new senators is Dublin-based Hélène Conway-Mouret, who stood for the socialists.

Although the National Assembly, France’s lower house, has the final say over legislation, taking control of the senate will give the left significant new powers and a huge boost just seven months months before a presidential election.

“An earthquake”, Le Monde newspaper declared yesterday after final results showed left-wing parties, including the socialists, greens and communists, had won 177 seats out of 348. The senate is not chosen by universal suffrage but by a “super-electorate” of about 72,000 mayors, local and regional councillors, choosing from regional lists of candidates. About half the seats in the house were up for grabs in the Sunday’s poll, and the left needed to add only 23 more seats to win a majority.

“September 25th, 2011, will go down in history,” Jean-Pierre Bel, head of the socialist group in the Senate, said on television. “The results of this Senate election represent a real comeuppance for the right.”

The government tried to play down the result, pointing out that the upper house could delay but not block draft laws. “It’s a disappointment, but not a surprise,” said Jean-François Copé, the head of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party.

But the scale of the left’s breakthrough came as a shock. Voting in senate elections is heavily weighed in favour of rural France, which has always given conservative parties a structural advantage over the left, which does better in large towns and cities.

Villages and small towns with fewer than 9,000 inhabitants account for about half the French population, but they provide 70 per cent of “super-voters” for the senate.

“It was a law of our political life: the senate never witnessed a handover because it was conceived precisely to avoid that. It seemed to be, essentially and eternally, of the right,” Libération said in an editorial.

The senate win extends a clean sweep for left-wing parties in French elections since Mr Sarkozy came to power. The left already controls 21 out of 22 regions, 60 out of 100 départements and a majority of large communes.

Gaining control of the upper chamber will allow the opposition to frustrate the government and promote its policy platform in the final months of the president’s term. It could delay the 2012 budget and scuppers Mr Sarkozy’s hopes of getting a budget-balancing debt rule written into the French constitution, as such a change would require the approval of two-thirds of parliament.

The Socialist Party and its allies will also have greater powers to establish commissions of inquiry on topical issues, which could be used to embarrass a government plagued by scandals in the past year. A halting economy and consistently low approval ratings have badly weakened Mr Sarkozy.

The senate elections also revealed clear divisions in the right-wing vote, and the socialists hope that will help them take the Élysée next spring for just the second time since 1958.

The UMP leader in the house, Gérard Larcher, conceded that the result could have “seismic” consequences ahead of the election next spring, but UMP senator and former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin put a brave face on the defeat. “There is an old rule in the Fifth Republic: the victor in September is not the victor in May,” he said.