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French left looks to presidential victory after historic Senate win

Reuters/Benoit Tessier

France’s Socialist Party is predicting victory in next year’s presidential election after the left won control of the upper house of parliament for the first time since 1958. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP has vowed to keep up the fight but is reeling from an unprecedented defeat.

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The left won 177 seats, two more than an absolute majority, in Sunday’s vote.

The result is a “serious warning” for the UMP, Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire admitted Monday, while Prime Minister François Fillon and UMP leader Jean-François Copé met Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace to take stock of the result.

AFP/Bertrand Guay

This is the first time since France’s Fifth Republic was established in 1958 that the left has taken control of the Senate and follows left victories in all local elections since 2004. The upper house is indirectly elected, so the leftward swing of local and regional authorities is the main reason for the change.

But the right was also hampered by splits in its ranks and opposition to local authority reform, which has abolished several thousand council seats while seeing a squeeze on budgets.

Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin recognised “rumblings of discontent” in the provinces but still held out hope that the right could keep the Senate presidency which comes up for election on 1 October.

The immediate effects of the upset will be limited. Although Senators can propose bills, the upper house cannot block legislation. It can only stall by sending bills to a committee for possible redrafting.

But the government needs a three-fifths majority of both houses together to change the constitution. That means that Sarkozy’s proposed “golden rule”, which would make it a constitutional obligation to balance the budget, cannot be passed, since the Socialists oppose it. 

Spate of high-profile trials in France

And the Senate president takes over from the head of state if the latter is incapacitated.

“This is a day that will mark history,” declared Socialist leader in the Senate Jean-Pierre Bel on Monday announced he will stand for the post, but the incumbent, Gérad Larcher, has not conceded defeat.

The ecologist party, EELV, saw its presence in the Senate leap form four to 10, leading their presidential candidate, Eva Joly, to call for the limit to be dropped from 15 to 10 to allow the formation of a party group in the house.

French politics no stranger to scandals

With his associates questioned in the Karachi kickbacks scandal, unemployment high and French banks overexposed to Greek and Italian debts, Sarkozy’s prospects in the 2012 presidential poll are becoming grimmer every day.

"Nicolas Sarkozy will go down in history as the president who lost the right its majority in the Senate," declared Francois Hollande, favourite to become the Socialist presidential candidate. "In a way it's like a premonition of what will happen in 2012."

But UMP chief Copé insisted, “In no way is it a disavowal of the government’s policies.”

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