Saturday, October 4, 2014

French Senate elections:more bad news for the left

Recently, half of the French Senate (the indirectly elected upper house of the French parliament) went up for election. The Senate receives little media attention, but election results can be a useful gauge for party support.

At the last Senate election in 2011, the centre-left won control of the body for the first time. The Socialist Party-led Union of the Left, an alliance between the Socialists, the Communists, the Greens, and a Senate-only group called the Europe Democratic Social Rally won 177 seats in the 348 member body. The right-wing alliance of the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) and the Centrist Union (UC) won 163 seats, and 7 seats were won by independents.

However, the times are very different now. Socialist President Fran├žois Hollande is historically unpopular, with an approval rating hovering around 20%. His party managed their worst result ever in the European parliament elections, winning only 14% of the vote and coming third behind the UMP and the far-right National Front (FN). The party has also had multiple dismal results in the municipalities.

The results in the Senate, which is elected by an 'electoral college' of 1,800 local and federal officials, is elected by a two-round system in departments that elect 3 or fewer senators, and proportional representation in departments that elect more than 4 senators.

The Senate tends to over-represent rural areas, as do most federal bodies of that sort. This automatically gives the right an advantage. However, the relative success of the left in the 2011 election (these Senators are not up for election), and the fact that the right already has a significant number of seats mean that the result will probably not be a landslide of any sort.

While results will not formally be out until Saturday (in France), the results of the Senate election are expected to be a majority of 10-20 for the UMP-led alliance. This is a significant loss for the Socialists, given that the Socialists actually had their best results amongst the Senators elected in 2011 (although I'm not totally sure about the breakdown of senators by party by election. If anyone knows, please comment!).

The win of two seats by the National Front is the most surprising result. The FN has never before held representation in the Senate before, as they have been unsuccessful at the local level. The result is only a token win, but it is a significant token for the party.

So, what does this mean for the government? Well, the Senate is not very powerful. It can block a bill and suggest amendments, but the National Assembly (the upper house) has the final say. It will be a pain for the Socialist majority in the Assembly, but it will not be a huge setback. It is bad news, however, for a party reeling from constant defeats.

The UMP has been falling apart. Damaging feuds in party leadership elections have kept the party far from popular, and the lack of an alternative presidential candidate to run against Hollande means that the party is forced to run only off Hollande's unpopularity. There was no surprise about this result; the Socialists are too unpopular and the FN are too marginalised amongst the electoral collage for either to come close to victory.

The FN will be cheered by this result. However, it does show that they have a large mountain to climb before they become a significant force in the National Assembly. The two-round system's high thresholds, and the fact that the FN is outside both the centre-left and right alliances means that they will struggle to win majorities, as both alliances have demonstrated that they will withdraw from an election to prevent FN candidates from winning.

It remains to be seen how well the FN will do in the next parliamentary election in 2017. There are many unanswered questions. Will the Socialists revitalize their party? Will the UMP be able to get anywhere? Will UMP or Socialist voters disobey the instructions of their parties and vote for FN candidates in the second round? Whatever happens, French politics is changing fast.

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