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French Socialists set to lose short-lived Senate majority

Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP | The Palais du Luxembourg, home to the French Senate.

Left-leaning leaders were bracing for defeat in France’s Senate in elections on Sunday, only three years after they won a historic majority in the upper-house of parliament. But experts say the brief tenure was not inconsequential.

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Half of the Senate’s 348 seats are up for grabs on Sunday, in a vote whose outcome is determined by an electoral college, not by ordinary French voters at the ballot box.

Save for a major surprise, French conservatives should reclaim the chamber: the electoral college is largely made up of local mayors, and the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party swept municipal elections in March.

The results of Sunday’s poll are also expected to be a further embarrassment to President François Hollande, a Socialist, whose popularity has sunk to historic lows halfway through his five-year term.

Hollande hailed a left-wing senatorial victory in September 2011 as a “historic moment.” Indeed, three years ago Socialist Party members and allies won control of the upper-house of parliament for the first time since the end of World War II.

“If France’s next president is from the left-wing, the [new Senate] will be a major asset to him,” Hollande declared at the time, eight months before his own electoral victory.

In the end, Hollande’s advantage lasted less than 30 months, but analysts said that even so, the left-wing majority left its mark in the Senate.

Gay marriage

According to Olivier Rouquan, a French political analyst and university professor, France’s Senate was behind a handful of social reforms and modernisation initiatives over these past three years.

“The Senate has the reputation of being a body made up mostly of older men and very few women, not a hotbed of social reform,” Rouquan said. “But lately it has been changing, slowly evolving.”

Rouquan pointed specifically to the Senate’s adoption of gay-marriage legislation in April 2013. The vote split mostly down party lines, but four UMP Senators cast ballots in favour of the law, while two Socialist senators voted against it.

The analyst said that the Senate’s approval gave a significant boost to the gay-marriage law, an issue that had deeply divided French society.

The left-wing majority in the Senate has also been credited for adopting other important measures, including new rules that make the institution a better reflection of France’s modern-day demographics and more accountable to the public.

A seat for the National Front?

At the same time, several initiatives on Hollande’s to-do list have met stiff opposition in the left-wing Senate.

His Socialist Party did not enjoy an outright majority in the chamber and sometimes found it impossible to persuade traditional allies in the Green and Communist party to vote through its bills.

Proposed reforms to France’s pension system and plans to redraw the country’s administrative map were buried.

Senators, who often are also small-town mayors, have unsurprisingly shot down moves to limit the number of elected offices a single lawmaker can fill.

Rouquan said that a certain degree of opposition to the executive branch was to be expected from the Senate.

“It’s one of its hallmarks. French senators have consistently sought to show their independence vis-à-vis the political majority, even if they share political views,” he said.

The Senate’s independence streak could be all the more evident as it shifts to the political right. Sunday’s vote could even introduce a senator from the far-right National Front party, a first in the history of France.

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