Emmanuel Macron’s party struggles in French senate elections

President will struggle to make constitutional changes as party wins less than 8% of seats

French senators attending a session in the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron failed to repeat a landslide in French senatorial elections on Sunday, his centrist party winning less than 8 per cent of the seats and traditional parties holding their previous positions in the upper house of parliament.

While the poor showing will not prevent the French leader from passing economic reforms, it will make planned constitutional changes more difficult as they require three-fifth of all seats in both the lower and upper houses to be adopted.

According to partial results on Sunday evening, Mr Macron’s 18-month-old La République en Marche was expected to secure 20-30 seats in the senate, which was renewing half of its 348 seats. The centre-right Républicains party and its allies held on to their majority in the chamber with an expected 212 seats. The Socialist party secured about a quarter of the seats. The far-right National Front party did not gain more seats than its existing two.

The lacklustre score for Mr Macron partly highlights the difficulties the president is facing four months after his emphatic election in a run-off against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and his victory in legislative elections a month later, in which he secured a large majority in the national assembly, the lower chamber of parliament.


More than half of French people say they are unhappy with their leader, who has pursued a flurry of bills, including legislation intended to make the labour market more flexible. On Saturday tens of thousands of people, mostly hard-left Unbowed France party sympathisers, marched in Paris to protest against what they view as Mr Macron's "social coup d'état". Truck drivers are planning to block roads around the French capital on Monday to voice their opposition to jobs reform. Civil servants have called for a day of strikes in the coming days too. Local councillors worry over cuts in their budgets.

Constitutional challenge

If the French senate seems immune to Mr Macron’s political disruption, it is largely because the political forces in the lower house are often a reflection of the previous municipal elections. Every three years about 76,000 delegates – mostly local elected officials such as municipal councillors – go to the polls to fill half of senate seats (the term of office being six years). In 2014 centre-right parties attracted a combined 46 per cent share of the vote and the ruling Socialist party 41 per cent.

Mr Macron's poor electoral score in the senatorial elections on Sunday will not bar him from passing the bulk of his reforms: the upper house can amend bills but the National Assembly has the final say.

But the president needs the approval of the senate for constitutional changes, including a plan to cut the number of seats in both parliamentary houses by a third and the introduction of proportionality in legislative elections. The government needs a majority of senators to introduce the bill and needs three-fifths of seats in both houses (or a total of 555 of the combined 925 seats) to change the constitution.

However, the president is counting on a fragmented centre-right, torn between those who want to support his liberal reforms and a more conservative fringe, to find allies for his constitutional plan. Another option to try to pass the reform would be to hold a referendum.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017