France elects first Socialist head of Senate
Socialist candidate Jean-Pierre Bel has been elected to the presidency of the French Senate, a week after the left won a majority of seats in the upper chamber of parliament for the first time in modern French history.
A relative unknown even in his own country, Socialist French Senator Jean-Pierre Bel was elected to the presidency of the Senate on Saturday, a week after the left won a majority of seats in the upper house of parliament for the first time in the history of France's Fifth Republic.
The main opposition Socialist Party finished two seats ahead of the ruling UMP party in Senate elections on Sept. 26, but Saturday's internal chamber vote saw Bel beat the incumbent president, UMP lawmaker Gérard Larcher, by a margin of 45 votes.
The election of the Senate's first Socialist president, while highly anticipated, marks yet another stinging blow for France's conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
According to the country’s constitution, the president of the Senate is first in the presidential line of succession.
Atypical rise to power
Bel’s victory crowns an atypical rise to prominence. Neither a Parisian nor a product of elite Socialist Party circles, he learned politics in the mountainous Ariege region bordering Spain.
In 1980 Bel settled with his wife in Mijanes, a tiny village of just 91 inhabitants hidden in the Pyrenees mountains. He had been planning to run a holiday resort, but instead turned to politics, becoming the town’s mayor in 1983. A former member of the far-left LCR party, Bel joined the mainstream Socialist Party the same year.
Four years later he rose to the ranks of councilman in the Ariege department’s government – then chaired by his father-in-law, Robert Naudy. But it was an auspicious meeting with Lionel Jospin, then first secretary of the Socialist Party, which propelled Bel to the national stage.
With Jospin’s endorsement, Bel was appointed to a series of increasingly important posts starting in 1992. From 1997 to 2000 he served as the Socialist Party’s chief election coordinator at the national level, and became a Senator for the Ariege region for the first time in 1998. In 2004 he took over the leadership of the Socialist group in the Senate.
'Not the man of the hour'
Bel forged a quiet but disciplined voting block on the left, a consensus-building effort that reaffirmed his place as the Senate's head of opposition. After the left won its first Senate majority since 1958 last week, Bel was naturally nominated as the Socialist candidate for the presidency of the chamber.
Socialists have largely rallied behind him, but a few dissenting voices were also heard in the run-up to the poll. According to Yvon Collin, president of the European Democratic and Social Rally, a voting block in the Senate that counts 18 members, “the harshest criticism [of Bel] comes from within his party.”
Socialist Party chief and presidential hopeful Martine Aubry, possibly annoyed by Bel’s support for her in-party rival François Hollande, told French journalists that Bel was the sort to jump on the bandwagon.
“If the left is in a position to take control of the presidency of the Senate, Jean-Pierre Bel is not the man of the hour. He’s an opportunist,” Aubry was quoted as saying in the recently published book “The battle for the Senate”.
Bel offered a different explanation for the criticism that has trailed him. “I am a mountaineer from Ariege and I've never elbowed my way to get in front of the photo,” he told France Inter radio on Wednesday. “We who come from outlying regions, we are often seen as strange. I’ve always faced this scepticism, but it’s up to us to show that we can lead.”