French Senate 2011

Indirect senatorial elections were held in France on September 25, 2011. 170 Senators of Series I were up for reelection for a six-year term. After this election, the French Senate will have 348 members, of which 326 represent metropolitan France and the DOM-TOMs. The Senate currently has 343 members: Isère, Maine-et-Loire, Oise, Réunion and New Caledonia all gained one seat. Though not directly elected, the Senate has similar powers to the National Assembly in terms of proposing, voting and ratifying laws although in cases where there is utter deadlock, the government can ultimately bypass the Senate and give the National Assembly the final word. The government is not responsible to the Senate.

Each department or collectivité territoriale elects between one and 12 (Paris) Senators. This election concerns all departments numbered 37 to 66, all departments in the Ile-de-France region, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, Mayotte, New Caledonia, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon and 6 of 12 Senators representing French citizens living outside of France. Those Senators in the departments 37-66 were elected in 2001, the rest were elected in 2004. Departments with 4 or more seats elect their Senators using party-list proportional representation. Departments with 3 or fewer seats elect theirs using the two-round system. The Senate is elected by an electoral college of roughly 150,000 grand electors. This electoral college is composed of all 577 deputies, regional councillors, general councillors and most importantly delegates from each municipal council (from France’s 36,000+ municipalities). The number of delegates each municipality sends to the electoral college depends on the municipality’s population. For example, those with 500 or less send only one. Those with 3,500 to 8,999 inhabitants send 15. Municipal councillors in cities with over 9,000 inhabitants are all delegates, and those cities with more than 30,000 inhabitants also send an extra delegate for each additional 1,000 people. This system over-represents the smallest municipalities because of the sheer number of tiny municipalities in France. Thus, even if municipalities with less than 3,500 people make up 34% or so of the population, they represent nearly half of the delegates!

Because of the Senate’s rural bias, the Senate has always been a “chamber of sober second thought”, and, by consequence, quite conservative. The Socialist left has never won a majority in the Senate. Rural municipalities in France, so important in the Senate, have traditionally been rather right-leaning but most of their elected officials are non-partisan with ambiguous ties to the large parties. The Senate’s electoral system has favoured those parties with strong grassroots bases in small-town France or alternatively parties with powerful local government machines (the former being more important). This favouritism for small-town grassroots parties or groupings of politicians has benefited the so-called ‘moderate’ parties of the centre (which were quite small-c conservative overall): the Christian democrats, the old Fourth Republic ‘moderates’ (right-wingers) and of course the Radicals. Those political forces are not major ideological “mass parties” like the Gaullists, socialists or communists, but they are rather partis de notables with large cohorts of small-town elected officials and the sort. During the Third Republic, the Senate was a Radical preserve. During the Fourth Republic and in fact a good part of the Fifth Republic, the Senate maintained large Radical and centrist caucuses – far larger than similar groups in the National Assembly. Even in 2001, the Radicals and centrist-liberal groups together held 35% of seats.

The brain-dead media usually says that “the Senate is right-wing since 1958”, assuming they don’t go sensational on us and say that it’s been right-wing since 1876. While a case could be made that, by modern definitions of left and right, the Senate has been more ‘right-wing’ for its history, it is not quite correct to say that the right has held the Senate. The Radicals were, in their senatorial heydays, not “right-wing” in that they allied themselves with the left rather than right. The Gaullist presidential majority never controlled the Senate under de Gaulle and Pompidou, and it was only in 1974 with the disappearance of the centrist opposition that the presidential majority gained a senatorial majority. The first President of the Senate under the Fifth Republic, the Radical Gaston Monnerville (1959-1968) was very much anti-Gaullist. Alain Poher, elected in 1968, was a centrist opponent of the Gaullist majority. The Gaullist right would need to wait until Christian Poncelet’s election to the presidency of the Senate in 1998 to really “control” the Senate. It is, however, correct to say that the socialists have never controlled the Senate. Whether or not the left has controlled it depends on your definition of such terms.

French politics are increasingly bipolarized, but Senate political groups (15 members required to form such groups) are remarkably cross-ideological to this day. There are two main so-called groupes charnières which lay in the middle of the upper house. The Centrist Union (UC), the remnants of the old Christian democratic groups, is a broad centrist group composed of centre-right/centrist senators from the New Centre (NC), Centrist Alliance (AC), MoDem and independent centrists. The NC and AC generally align with the presidential majority, but the MoDem can show its independence at times though in practice and despite François Bayrou’s posturing, it more often aligns with the right than with the left. Since the UMP lost its overall majority in the Senate in 2008, the UC has provided the right with an absolute majority. The second main centrist group is the European Democratic and Social Rally (RDSE), the modern incarnation of the time immemorial Radical (Democratic Left) parliamentary groups, once so powerful. The RDSE, in theory, includes members of the right-wing Radical Party (PR, led by Jean-Louis Borloo) and the left-wing Left Radicals (PRG, led by Jean-Michel Baylet), which makes it quite unique given that in the National Assembly, the Radicals and PRG have sat in separate groups since the 1970s. While until 2008 the RDSE was pretty evenly balanced between left and right, in recent years it has become quite heavily slanted towards the left. Only one right-wing Radical sits in the RDSE group (Aymeri de Montesquiou) and of the 18 RDSE members, only five are right-wing today. The Radical past of the RDSE is decaying slowly as the RDSE tries to save itself by becoming more and more a group for non-socialist left-wingers, most notably Jean-Pierre Chevènement of the MRC, whose party has little in common with the pro-European tradition of the Radicals.

These elections were important in that, seven months out from the “big election” (presidential elections), the PS was hoping to stage a symbolic coup by toppling decades of right-wing control of the Senate. Symbolic because it is unlikely to massively impede the right’s ability to pass legislation until the spring of 2012 (and after if it is reelected then). Given that half of seats were up for reelection rather than only a third like in previous years also increased the chances of alternance in the upper house. If the Senate was directly elected by voters, the Senate would already be controlled by the left, but given that the Senate’s composition is in the hands of local councillors, a lot of whom have no partisan ties (with either PS or UMP), there was uncertainty over the outcome. Another boost to the left’s chances came with the utter division of the right, which descended more than ever into personal squabbles and petty fights. In most elections with proportional elections, the right was divided between two or more lists. In Paris, the UMP split into an official list led by Chantal Jouanno, Sports Minister and a dissident list led by local councillor Pierre Charon. Add to that a centrist list led by sitting Senator Yves Pozzo di Borgo (NC), and the ground was rough for the right. In Nicolas Sarkozy’s native Hauts-de-Seine, the local UMP was divided between an official list led by Roger Karoutchi and a dissident list led by incumbent Senator Jacques Gautier. The centre was also divided, with Senator Denis Badré’s MoDem list and Meudon mayor Hervé Marseille’s NC list. In Seine-et-Marne, former cabinet minister Yves Jégo, now aligned with Borloo, ran his own list. In the Nord, the right had three major lists. The list of right-wing divisions is long: Isère, Essonne, Yvelines, Val-de-Marne, Val-d’Oise and so forth.

Here are the results, as I have calculated them. Other counts differ slightly from mine, but all is a question of how some senators are classified.

Left 177 seats (+25)
Right 171 seats (-18)

In terms of groups, my estimate is as follows – it will be incorrect as certain independents side with another group over the ones I’ve guessed for them:

Socialist and allies group 143 seats (+28)
UMP and allies group 136 seats (-11)
Centrist Union (UC) 25 seats (-4)
Communist and allies (CRC) group 21 seats (-3)
European Democratic and Social Rally (RDSE) 16 seats (-2)
Non-inscrits (RASNAG) group 7 seats (-1) [nb: all are right-wingers]

Overall numbers correct or not, the left has narrowly claimed control of the Senate and broken decades of right-wing dominance of the upper house in a symbolic blow to President Sarkozy seven months out from the big election. For the first time, the Socialists will control the Senate. That’s quite something.

It was theorized that if the elections ended in deadlock, with the left gaining but falling short of a 175-seat majority, that the centrist group, UC specifically, could hope to gain the Senate’s presidency as a compromise choice through backroom deals. Jean Arthuis (AC, Mayenne) had been cited as one of those potential moderate compromise choices between left and right. That amounts to naught basically, as the left can elect one of its own to the presidency now. The most logical choice to replace the incumbent Gérard Larcher (UMP, Yvelines) is the leader of the PS group since 2004, Jean-Pierre Bel (PS, Ariège). He is not too well known and is not an heavy-weight political, so pundits think that he might face some internal competition – the biggest name to emerge so far is that of former cabinet minister Catherine Tasca (PS, Yvelines). In terms of the PS primary on October 9 (more on that soon), Bel and the bulk of PS Senators back frontrunner François Hollande. Tasca backs Martine Aubry. The bigwig hollandistes in the Senate (Dijon mayor François Rebsamen, Lyon mayor Gérard Collomb) seem loyal to Bel.

You can view results on the Senate’s official website here or through the Interior Ministry. The left picked up seats almost across the board: they only lost seats in Moselle. The left also gained four of the five new seats created (all but New Caledonia’s new second seat). Some of the most shocking gains for the left came in the Morbihan, Lozère and Loir-et-Cher. Morbihan is, I think, the most shocking of all results – all other gains could have been seen beforehand, but not the game-changer in Morbihan. Morbihan had elected three senators through proportional representation in 2001, one of them was a Socialist (Odette Herviaux) and the other two were right-wingers. The right had hoped and many had thought that the Morbihan would be a good target for a grand-slam for the right, benefiting from the use of two-round voting rather than PR and the notoriety of its three main candidates: incumbent Senator Joseph Kerguéris (AC), deputy for the 6th constituency and Plouay mayor Jacques Le Nay (UMP) and the new president of the general council, deputy for the 1st constituency and former Vannes mayor François Goulard (RS, Villepin’s party). Not much ink was spilled about the left’s other two candidates: the PCF mayor of Auray Michel Le Scouarnec and the EELV general councillor Joël Labbé. The first shockwave was Herviaux’s reelection by the first round with 54.7%. The second was the fact that Le Scouarnec and Labbé placed second and third (47.5% and 47.9% respectively) – ahead of the right-wingers (Le Nay with 47.1%, Goulard and Kerguéris with 45.8%). Kerguéris’ withdrawal before the runoff didn’t help matters: the communist and the green won with 51.7% and 51% respectively. Le Nay and Goulard took 46% each. The left’s gain of two seats in the Morbihan, totally unexpected, was a big result.

In historically right-wing Lozère, UMP incumbent Jacques Blanc (a former regional president) was defeated in the second round by Alain Bertrand, the PS mayor of Mende. This is the first socialist to represent Lozère. In the first round, Blanc had 169 votes to Bertrand’s 168 (the FN won 1 vote). In the runoff, Bertrand won 173-169 against the longtime local strongman with no FN votes recorded. In the Loir-et-Cher, after MoDem incumbent Jacqueline Gourault’s easy reelection in the first round, the second round saw the defeat of sitting cabinet minister Maurice Leroy (NC) by Jeanny Lorgeoux (PS), the mayor of Romorantin-Lanthenay. In the Loiret, incumbent PS Senator Jean-Pierre Sueur had been thought to be vulnerable, but he was easily reelected as early as the first round. In the Manche, the very vulnerable PS incumbent Jean-Pierre Godefroy (elected through PR in 2001) was saved by the UMP’s division in the runoff. In the Pyrénées-Orientales, the surprise wasn’t as much the easy election of the regional president Christian Bourquin (DVG), bur rather the defeat of incumbent UMP Senator and Perpignan mayor Jean-Paul Alduy by the other UMP candidate, deputy François Calvet. In the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, former departmental president Jean-Jacques Lasserre (MoDem) was rather easily elected. The biggest (but not altogether surprising) defeat was that of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon senator Denis Detcheverry (DVD-RDSE) who won a grand total of zero votes in his reelection bid. In the tiny archipelago, the PS mayor of Saint-Pierre Karine Claireaux defeated former UMP deputy Gérard Grignon 20 votes to 17.

In most departments using list PR to elect their members, many grand electors shunned the official UMP list and generously gave their votes to the dissident lists. In Paris, Jouanno’s UMP list received only two seats and 22.9% while Charon’s dissident UMP list took 7.98% and the centrist list took 7.65%. In the Hauts-de-Seine, Roger Karoutchi’s official list took only 23.2% and two seats while Gautier’s dissident list won 19.4% and Marseille’s NC list won 13.8%. In Isère, Michel Savin’s dissident list took 16.7% – only a handful of votes behind Bernard Saugey’s official list which won 17.5%. In the Nord, the Lecerf-Létard duo won 18.3% and two seats against Jacques Legendre’s UMP list, which won 9.7%. In departments which pitted centrist lists against official UMP lists (Loire-Atlantique, Hauts-de-Seine, Val-de-Marne, Seine-Saint-Denis and so on), the results obtained by the centrist lists were strong in contrast to the UMP’s weak showings. In Loire-Atlantique, the NC list managed 18% against 25.5% for the UMP list. The divisions of the right did not cripple the senatorial majority, as the UMP would like to make us think, but it did hurt it more than just a bit. The poor showings of the official UMP lists imposed on the voters by the presidential party’s high command and, in contrast, the strong showings of both dissident UMP lists and of rival centrist (often NC-led) lists shows how the whole configuration of the UMP as the big tent ­”parti unique” of the right is showing its strains. The centralization of the UMP appartus, painfully evident in this election, has crippled the party on the ground. It seems as if, in the UMP and in the high echelons of power, there’s only one way or the highway. Those unhappy with this route are left out on their own. In the days of the dualistic RPR-UDF configuration of the right, there could be some sort of alternative for right-wingers who fell out with one of those parties. These days, there is no such strong alternative for right-wingers who, more often than not, turn to the FN or the left. The UMP’s days as the hegemonic party of the French right may be numbered. Nicolas Sarkozy’s insistence on there being only one right-wing candidate in 2012 is also practically dead as the presidential candidacy of Jean-Louis Borloo, who could potentially incarnate the centre-right alternative (a la UDF), is looking increasingly likely.

In detail by parties, my calculations still have the UMP as the largest single party with 125 seats against 121 for the PS. The Greens (EELV) emerged as the big winners of the senatorial elections, not through their own strong showings but rather through the PS’s generosity in their favour. The Greens, having a tiny base in local government, has usually been very weak in senate elections: they held only four seats before the election. The increasingly influential EELV apparatus demanded from the PS the concession of many seats, which the PS generally acquiesced to generously. The Greens now have 10 senators, up 6 from the last senate. This is not enough for them to create their own group as they demand, but if they can convince a few left-wing indies (DVG) to join up, they might have a team of their own. Or, alternatively, they could, with the PRG, turn the RDSE into something more akin to the diverse Radical-Citizen-Green (RCV) group of the 1997-2002 National Assembly. The RDSE, with 16 seats – a loss of two senators (Daniel Marsin in Guadeloupe and Denis Detcheverry in SPM), both of them right-wingers, is now more than ever a quasi-homogeneous left-wing caucus. Only three of the 16 Senators in the old RDSE group are now right-leaning. In the centre, the UC overall lost four seats. It could increase its ranks a bit if a few UMP dissidents join it. Within the diverse UC, the cards have been changed quite a bit. Jean Arthuis’ AC was the biggest party prior to the vote, now the NC is the biggest party with 12 (or 11, according to sources) members while the AC now has seven. The MoDem took a significant hit, losing all three of its seats in Ile-de-France and being left with a much reduced caucus of four senators. The Communist group is left with 21 members, down three. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s PG lost both its senators (both retired), while the PCF lost a seat in Seine-Saint-Denis and Essonne. The PCF scored a gain, as aforementioned, in Morbihan with the surprise election of Auray mayor Michel Le Scouarnec. One of the Communist seats is held by the Reunionese Communists (PCR), which won one member – Paul Vergès – who resigned his seat immediately after winning it (he is replaced by incumbent PCR senator Gélita Hoarau, who was second on his list).

In these elections, rural local councillors are the determinants (outside the urban departments which use PR) and they make or break majorities. They have no partisan ties, but traditionally they have been naturally conservative and right-leaning. However, in 2011 especially and in the last elections (2008) to a lesser extent, rural France’s local councillors showed their anger with the government and voted for the left. Rural anger with the government has only increased in the past year, with the main causes of this rural anger with local elected officials are things such as spending cuts, reductions in public services (local post offices, local hospitals, local schools), the abolition of the taxe professionelle (by which local government was financed), the 2010 territorial reform, local divisions and, in some regions (especially the old UDF strongholds), the elitist (bling-bling) and right-wing style of the government which breaks from the more consensual, moderate centre-right styles of governance which these rural centrists preferred. These local elected officials, in large part, express the ire of their constituents, and those constituents in rural France might show their discontent with the right in big, perhaps unexpected, ways in 2012.

Next stop on the road to 2012: the high-stakes left-wing open primary on October 9. A preview post with all the candidates will be up between now and then.

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Posted on September 26, 2011, in France. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Pour la première fois de la Ve République, le Sénat bascule à gauche, c’est un événement historique !

  2. A nice and detailed account of the main issues, results and consequences of this passionating race. Thank you.
    As Julien said, what happened is indeed historical, and last sunday will be remembered as an important date in the history of French institutions. I have difficulties to believe it myself, but this political earthquake is a very encouraging sign for 2012.

  3. Anne- Cécile

    How many terms may a senator serve?

  1. Pingback: Election Preview: France 2012 « World Elections

  2. Pingback: The Worst Political System: A Thought Experiment – Journo Bedell

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