Election preview: French Senate

As democracy gradually spread over the western world in the nineteenth century, a pattern established itself. The lower house of parliament would be directly elected, often with some residual unfairness but at least broadly representative of the mass of the population. The upper house, however, would remain the preserve of more conservative forces, ready to act as a backstop against popular radicalism.

Much has changed since then, and many upper houses have been drastically reformed or simply abolished. But many still retain traces, or more, of their original role as a counterweight to democracy.

The Senate of France is a good example. Over recent years it has been reformed – terms have been reduced from nine years to six (with half elected every three years), the minimum age has been reduced from 35 to 30 and now to 24, and elections have been made more proportional. But the fundamental conservative bias remains.

Senators represent the departments of France, with different numbers of senators per department, roughly in accordance with their population. But the senators are elected not by the population at large, but by an electoral college in each department consisting of MPs, regional and departmental councillors, and representatives of local government.

Since France has an enormous number of units of local government, or communes (more than 36,000 of them), that’s where most of the votes for senators come from. And although there are provisions for giving extra votes to the more populous communes, the system still gives disproportionate weight to rural communities, which, as in most countries, lean to the more conservative end of the spectrum.

That’s why, despite regular shifts in the composition of the lower house, the National Assembly, the Senate had remained under the uninterrupted control of the centre-right from the establishment of the fifth republic in 1958 until the last election in 2011, when, benefiting from the unpopularity of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-left finally won a majority, 177 to 171.

Elections this Sunday are likely to show that majority to have been transient. The boot is now on the other foot: it’s a Socialist president, François Hollande, who is now plumbing the depths of unpopularity, and the Senate is expected to revert to its traditional conservatism.

The one thing in the centre-left’s favor is that because of the staggered terms, the senators up for re-election this time were elected in 2008 (or in some cases 2004, due to the transition from nine-year terms), when the right was in somewhat better shape than in 2011. Of the 178 seats up for election, 96 are held by parties of the right and only 82 by the left.

But in light of the massive victory by the right in this year’s municipal elections, it should have little trouble winning the extra seats needed for a majority. Le Monde reports that the centre-right UMP expects to pick up between 13 and 15 seats.

For the UMP, however, this may be as good as it gets. Its internal tensions are dominating the media, with the return of Sarkozy as a candidate for the party presidency and apparently irreconcilable differences about how to deal with the threat posed by the far-right National Front (which on Sunday hopes to elect some senators for the first time). With hindsight, it may come to see March’s municipal elections as its high-water mark.

Hollande, almost at the half-way point of his presidency, will have resigned himself to losing the Senate. (Its powers, although significant, are limited: the lower house can always prevail in a conflict.) But if he can hold his party together until the economy improves and his opponents have time to discredit themselves, he may still hope to salvage something from the wreckage.

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