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French left poised for historic win in Senate vote

The Socialist Party could take control of the French Senate for the first time since World War Two in Sunday elections, a power shift that could have decisive implications for next year’s presidential poll.


France’s opposition Socialist Party is expected to gain several seats in Senate elections on Sunday and could even lead a historic takeover of the chamber by the left. France’s right wing has controlled the Senate since 1958 and the political shift could be a dangerous omen for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election drive.

Nearly half of the 348 Senate seats are up for grabs in Sunday’s indirect election. The opposition is almost sure to take a dozen seats from Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, but the Socialists and their allies on the far left are trying to wrestle away the 22 seats they believe will be enough to give them control of the upper house.

French Senators are chosen by a system of indirect elections. Members of an electoral college, made up of around 150,000 so-called "super voters" (grands électeurs), are eligible to vote in Senate elections. In 2011 this electoral college was made up of 577 Members of Parliament, around 5,870 local and regional councilmen, and 142,000 mayoral deputees.

French citizens choose their MPs, councilmen and mayors in direct elections.


Leaders on the left were careful not to cry victory ahead of the results, with the outcome of Senate elections in France notoriously difficult to predict. Ninety-five percent of the delegates voting on Sunday are regional councilmen and local mayors with no strict party affiliation.

“Who can really say?” said Brigitte Gonthier-Maurin a Communist Party senator from the Hauts-de-Seine department bordering Paris - considered a stronghold of Nicolas Sarkozy. “The left is widely united, we have a real chance of passing ahead of the UMP. The [Hauts-de-Seine] department is no longer ‘untouchable’.”

Current Senate president Gérard Larcher told journalists on Friday that his UMP party would retain control of the Senate nationwide “by six or seven” seats. In the previous Senate race in 2008, the Socialists gained 21 seats while other parties on the left gained an additional two, but the UMP remained in the majority with 147 overall.

Consequence of reforms

According to Tangui Morliur, co-founder of, a website that tracks the legislative activity of the French Senate, a series of factors explain why the Socialists are so close to conquering the presidency of the upper house.

“The most important reason is that the left has been steadily winning local elections since 2005,” Morliur said. After major victories in mayoral elections in 2008 and cantonal elections last march, Socialists have swelled the ranks of the electoral college that votes for French senators.

Morliur also pointed to 2003 reforms that added proportional representation to the Senate electoral process and that reduced senatorial mandates from nine to six years. “[The reforms] have tended to favour candidates from the left,” he argued.

Psychological blow

Internal divisions could also contribute to a possible UMP defeat in the poll. The ruling party has been plagued with “dissident lists” – UMP officials who are running against the president’s official sanctioned list of candidates. Even former close allies of Sarkozy, like MP Yves Jego and councilman Pierre Charon, are running against officially endorsed UMP candidates despite the threat of expulsion from the party.

Senate elections are often overlooked in France, with French media traditionally locked in on the lower house National Assembly and the Elysée Presidential Palace. But with the 2012 presidential vote less than seven months away, it is difficult to ignore the implications of Sunday’s poll.

Sarkozy, who is already struggling with deepening divisions within his party, could soon face the blame for loosing the Senate for the first time since the end of World War Two.

The Socialist Party and its allies are acutely aware that a major victory could shore up support for next year’s presidential campaign. “If the left can take over the Senate, it would be a fantastic call to put differences aside, to find the strength to build something together,” Senator Gonthier-Maurin enthused.

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