For the first time since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, the French political left has won an absolute majority in the Senate. In elections held on September 25, a broad front, ranging from the Communist Party through the Socialist Party (PS) to the Europe Ecologie-The Greens (EELV) and left radicals, gained 175 of the 348 upper chamber seats.
The Socialist Party, which now has 127 Senators, is their single largest contingent. The French right, which has traditionally dominated this house, has been badly shaken by the loss of several stronghold seats, including Loiret in north-central France. The Senate is elected by a college drawn from the lower tier assemblies, namely those of the regions, cantons, and municipalities. Across the country, the left have won heavily at all those levels during the last three years and, as municipal councillors comprise 95 per cent of the Electoral College, the Senatorial left will now have much greater weight in its dealings with the President. It will be able to direct Senate powers towards controlling the executive, especially by using commissions of inquiry. It will be able to propose legislation, although the lower house, the National Assembly, which is still controlled by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), retains the last word in the legislative process.
The result reflects the public mood in France, the strength and depth of broad left opinion at the grassroots level. As for the clout this provides, the leading Socialist Party Senator, Jean-Pierre Bel, says his party does not intend to be obstructive — but will use the Senate’s constitutional powers to the full. The political climate is therefore likely to change significantly. President Sarkozy, who has seven months left of his five-year term, is already in serious trouble. He is beset with corruption scandals, including allegations of illegal party funding obtained through kickbacks in arms sales to Pakistan. He is trying to revive a foreign policy mired in the Libyan sands by his own adventurism. His poll rating of 37 per cent, although slightly up owing to the intensification of his anti-immigrant rhetoric, cannot conceal his overall unpopularity. While the Socialist Party still has a lot of work to do before next year’s presidential election, the capture of the Senate has reinvigorated the French left. The radically altered membership of the upper house can give Mr. Sarkozy a very rough ride from now on, thereby ensuring that the Socialist candidate has an advantage when French voters choose their next President. Hindu