French senate’s choice of leader is a blow for returning Sarkozy

I can’t even look at you right now, Gérard. EPA/Gerard Cerles

On September 28, 179 new members were elected to the 348 seats in the French senate. Gérard Larcher, a member of the centre-right UMP party, was chosen as the senate président, or speaker.

Even though Larcher belongs to the same party as Nicolas Sarkozy, his rise to the top of the upper house is bad news for the returning former president. His apparent support for Sarkozy’s rival François Fillon is sure to dampen the excitement surrounding Sarkozy at the moment.

In the senate, the speaker does more than chair debates. Whoever holds the post must represent the outward face of the house and step in if the president of the republic is indisposed or impeached. He (and it has always been a man) is also the leader of the majority.

Having taken control of the senate in this election, the right began a campaign that it hopes will culminate in taking back the Elysée and National Assembly in 2017. The choice of speaker is therefore a very important one and a strong message has been sent out to the right, which currently finds itself in a state of disarray almost as bad as the left.

Over the summer, three potential candidates emerged within the UMP for the job of speaker. They were Larcher, who was speaker between 2008 and 2011; Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who was prime minister from 2002 to 2005 and Philippe Marini, a long-shot candidate hoping to use a good score as leverage later on.

On September 30, UMP senators held a primary to choose their candidate against the backdrop of the return of Sarkozy. The former president has not been universally welcomed by his party. Some see him as a liability in the battle to depose the Socialist government and others have designs on the leadership themselves. Among the latter is Fillon, who once served as Sarkozy’s prime minister but now as his arch rival.

Before the primary, Larcher was being billed as Fillon’s man and Raffarin as Sarkozy’s. Larcher has never made his preferences a secret and as speaker between 2008 and 2011 was forthright in criticising the pressure Sarkozy placed on parliament to push through legislation.

Raffarin has always been more circumspect and in the run up to the elections had done nothing more than welcome Sarkozy’s return. He actually warned the party against placing blind faith in the return of a providential saviour. This did not prevent Sarkozy from endorsing Raffarin’s candidature, arguably with fatal consequences.

UMP senators chose Larcher over Raffarin by 80 votes to 56, with Marini taking just seven. “That’s a blow for Sarkozy,” announced one Socialist senator. It was a harder one for Raffarin though, and Sarkozy’s endorsement did not help. Senators, even the ones in Sarkozy’s party, like their independence and were wary of electing a candidate who might be less willing to stand up to a forceful executive, should the time come.

UMP senators are also more moderate than their deputies in the lower house and were dismayed to see Sarkozy’s discourse lurch towards the far right in between the first and second rounds of voting in the 2012 presidential elections. They also had, in the backs of their minds, the thought that Larcher was better placed to win a solid majority for their party in the speaker election.

Above all, however, Raffarin’s political origins probably did for him. The UMP is an amalgamation of the political families welded together in 2002 to support Jacques Chirac’s presidential campaign. The core of the UMP’s senators come from the old Gaullist RPR, but Raffarin was an Independent Republican, closer to Chirac’s old rival Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

That said, Larcher’s return was by no means obvious. Many on the right blame him for not doing enough in the 2011 election to prevent the left taking control of the senate in the first place.

Larcher won the election for the speaker post on October 1. He failed to secure enough votes for an outright victory in the first round but a deal was quickly hammered out with the UDI group that saw him secure 194 votes of the 337 cast in the second round.

Larcher’s task now is to guide the senate in its relationship with a left-wing president and majority in the lower house. A key area of contention will be territorial reform, a field which – ironically under the premiership of Raffarin – was designated as an area of legislation over which the senate has special interest. And on the morning of the election of the speaker, president Hollande launched the idea of reducing the number of deputies and senators, a reform that will require a change to the constitution and must, therefore, pass both houses in identical form.

Larcher will also feel pressure from his own party to use the senate as a platform for attacking the government. His election is not the end of the road for Sarkozy by any means, but it will have brought far greater satisfaction to Fillon.