Monday, 26 September 2011

Sakozy loses French Senate to the Left

Small signs of hopes for the European left continue to mount. In a vote over the weekend the French Senate changed hands from Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party to the Socialists. It is the first time that the Senate has ever been out of the centre-right's control since the creation of the current French state in 1958, and it is a stunning setback for the French president just seven months ahead of France's general election.

So is this outcome a harbinger of a wider reascendance to power for the left, not only in France but also in Europe as a whole? Like the recent centre-left victories in Latvia and Denmark, this news comes with some important caveats. For starters, French Senators are not directly elected by the French people. They are instead chosen by 150,000 local officials throughout the country. These include mayors, city councelors and regional councelors as well as members of the lower house, the National Assembly.

In terms of power the French senate is much more similiar to its British cousin the House of Lords than to its American counterpart. The real power in France, after the presidency, lies with the National Assembly. The Senate can propose law and it must sign off on law, but like in the UK with the House of Lords, they can be easily overridden by the lower house and the president. Like with the House of Lords the French senate is often considered a refuge for people who used to be important, such as former assembly members or cabinet officials.

But even though this legislature housed in Paris's beautiful Luxembourg Gardens is a largely symbolic body that is not directly elected, the chang in power in the French Senate is hugely significant because it has been historically dominated by conservatives. This is because the voting system gives far more weight to rural councilors than it does to urban officials. And the countryside has always been the stronghold of the UMP. Half of the senate's seats were up for election this weekend, and though the official result has yet to be announced it looks certain that the Socialists, backed by the Communists and Greens, will have an absolute majority.

Given the fact that the senate can be easily overruled, and the fact that the Socialists will likely not want to be seen as obstructionists in a time of economic crisis, they are unlikely to use their new power to try to block Sarkozy's major initiatives in the Autumn. The most important of these are the budget and a reform of the healthcare system. So not much will change in terms of political reality between now and the election next April.

But the fact that local elected officials seem to have lost confidence in the French president will without doubt be a worrying sign to Sarkozy and could even cause panic within the UMP. It will also give a boost of confidence and hope to the Socialists, who have been demoralized and disunited for some time. Ségolène Royal, who hopes to challenge Sarkozy again if she wins the Socialist's nomination, called the vote a "very deep rejection by local elected officials of the unfair and inefficient policies of the Sarkozy system, which are plunging the country into one of the worst economic and moral crises it has known".

How will Sarkozy and the UMP respond to the loss? Will they moderate their policies and try to woo back the centre of the electorate by being less confrontational with unions and less aggressive on immigration issues? Or will they lurch to the right in order to make sure they do not lose votes to the far right National Front party in April? Either way, this weekend's result seems bound to illicit some kind of political response from the Elysee Palace.


Captain Kid said...

"Like the recent centre-left victories in Estonia and Denmark,"

You mean Latvia, right?

Dave Keating said...

yes, thanks!

Arnaud Grisard said...

And you should not forget about Germany where Merkel and CDU lose lander elections one after another...