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Officials to vote on half of France's Senate seats in key test for Macron

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | The French Senate, photographed ahead of the senatorial elections on September 24.

France renews half of its Senate seats on Sunday in a vote that will prove crucial to President Emmanuel Macron's sweeping reform plans and poses another political test as he struggles with declining popularity ratings.


Macron's La République en Marche (Republic on the Move or LREM) party is not expected to win a majority, in part because his ambitious reform plans are unpopular with many local councilors. Only mayors and regional councilors will take part in Sunday's vote, which is not open to the general public.

"En Marche is built on an almost direct link between Emmanuel Macron and the French people," said François Miquet-Marty, of the Viavoice consultancy, in comments to AFP. "In the Senate elections, it doesn't work like that."

What is at stake is whether LREM and its allies will win enough seats to give Macron the three-fifths majority in both houses of parliament that he needs to implement constitutional reforms, including his plans to overhaul parliament.

Of the 348 Senate seats, 171 are up for renewal. Whether Macron will secure the needed majority may rely on alliances with members of other parties, including senators who might break away from the conservative Les Républicains party to create their own faction, as they did in the lower house of parliament.

The fledgling LREM party, which was formed a mere 17 months ago, currently has 29 senators who defected from other parties to join up. It would need 180 seats in the Senate to reach a three-fifths majority in parliament.

>> Read more: Is the French Senate a retirement club for old politicians?

The election comes as Macron's approval ratings have dropped considerably in opinion polls, dragged down by his controversial labour reforms and planned budget cuts, including deep cuts to the military and a decrease in housing allowances for students.

Several local officials are also unhappy with the president's plans to cut subsidies to regional governments. Macron has proposed some €300 million in funding cuts for local and regional authorities.

"The government has accumulated a series of gaffes and has done everything in its power to rub lawmakers the wrong way," said centrist Senator Vincent Capo-Canellas.

>> Read more: Macron shifts communication strategy as popularity falls

LREM has set itself modest goals for Sunday, hoping to increase its parliamentary representation to 40-50 senators, and will be counting on alliances with lawmakers from other parties to back the government's plans on a case-by-case basis.

Sunday's election is expected to consolidate the Senate's conservative majority, now composed of 142 members of Les Républicains. The current Senate is positioned as something of a counterweight to Macron, even if the lower house National Assembly, where Macron has a clear majority, has the final say on legislation. The Senate has the power to delay bills, but in the case of a deadlock the final say goes to the LREM-dominated National Assembly – meaning a disappointing showing on Sunday would do little to stop Macron pushing through laws such as his promised, and hotly disputed, economic reforms.

But Macron's opponents so far are keeping up the pressure. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) party, staged a large protest march against Macron on Saturday that brought tens of thousands into the streets just a day after Macron signed his controversial labour reforms into law.

Explainer: French labour law reforms

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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