French left marks historic Senate vote victory

AP News
Posted: Sep 25, 2011 3:43 PM
French left marks historic Senate vote victory

France's left wrested the Senate from the right in indirect elections Sunday, taking the majority of seats in the upper house of parliament for the first time in more than 50 years _ a blow to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Seven months before presidential elections, Sarkozy's party downplayed what it said was a narrow win _ up to three seats, according to various officials of the president's party.

The minister for parliamentary relations, Patrick Ollier, said the results have "no national political significance." Final results of the voting to fill half the seats in the 348-seat house were not in, but the Socialist's leader in the Senate announced the victory.

"This is a day that will mark history," Jean-Pierre Bel, head of the Senate's Socialist group, announced in the gilded hall of the 17th-century palace.

The Senate president has a consequential role under the French Constitution _ as interim leader should the nation's president become incapacitated.

The upper house of parliament, a sumptuous 17th century palace at the foot of the Luxembourg Gardens, is sometimes derided as an institution that specializes in handing out rubber stamps. Nevertheless, it is an axis of power that can initiate bills and, above all, slow down their passage.

The right had controlled the Senate since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

"For the first time, change is in motion ... This is a real affront to the right," Bel said.

He estimated the left won 24 to 26 new seats. It needed 23 seats to gain a majority. Final results were not immediately expected.

The result further chisels down the profile of the already unpopular Sarkozy. It also provides the Socialist Party with prestige and political capital.

Senate President Gerard Larcher, of Sarkozy's party, conceded the left "made a real push ... larger than I thought" _ but said he would seek to renew his mandate as Senate president.

Leading members of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party, known as UMP, made a bid to save face, and power, putting the accent on the Oct. 1 vote for the president of the chamber because of the left's thin victory margin.

Socialists attributed their success to discontent in France's towns and rural heartland, the home bases of the 71,890 delegates, regionally and locally elected officials, who cast ballots to fill the 170 seats. Senators elected Sunday have six-year mandates.

Jean-Francois Cope, head of Sarkozy's UMP, said the election results were "a disappointment but not a surprise."

"In no way is it a disavowal of the politics of the government," he said.

In the presidential elections, the "totality of voters" will take part _ not delegates voting to fill half a chamber, he said.

The Socialists went into the elections confident because of the string of leftist victories in regional and local elections since 2008. The Socialist Party elections chief Christophe Borgel said earlier that local officials "have the feeling of being held in scorn."

A 2010 territorial reform will put several thousand regional and general counselors out of jobs. Some of these officials already complain that government funds aren't keeping up with increased responsibilities handed over to regions in a 2004 reform.

Francois Hollande, a favorite among a half-dozen Socialists seeking the party's presidential candidacy, said a leftist Senate majority would serve well a Socialist president because "it will be the first time there is a possibility to work with a leftist majority in the Senate."

Sarkozy will not be the first president to preside over the nation with opponents in control of at least one house of parliament.

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand dealt for each of his 14 years in office with his political rivals in the Senate and was forced to cohabit during part of his mandate with a conservative prime minister, Jacques Chirac, who succeeded him as president.


Cecile Brisson contributed to this report.