How the far right landed in the French Senate

So far, so right. EPA/STR

As if the French president, François Hollande, didn’t have enough woes, elections for the senate have dealt him another blow. Three years after Hollande’s socialists won the first ever majority for the left in the upper house, the right wing has taken back an assembly it believes to be its own. And worse still, among those elected to the seats up for grabs are two members of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National.

The right and far right have capitalised on the unique way the senate is elected to shake Hollande. In these complex competitions, seats can be won on just a few hundred votes and indeed, that is how Marine Le Pen’s party made ground this time round.

How the senate works

The Senate election is a good barometer for political opinion across France. In the lower house – the National Assembly – a single member is elected for each constituency but in the upper house, several senators are elected for each of the country’s 101 administrative departments. The number of seats is loosely linked to the size of the department’s population so while some departments have just one seat, the largest has 12.

Senators are not elected by the people but by a college comprising, for the most part, members of France’s 36,000 town councils. Members of the departmental and regional councils and, perhaps oddly, deputies from the lower house also vote, but these town councillors make up 95% of the colleges.

The number of delegates depends on the size of a town council, determined by a sliding scale. The smallest send two, but in the largest towns and cities, the whole council gets to vote. Towns and cities with a population of more than 30,000 also get extra votes from what you might call mayfly electors. These extra delegates are drafted in for just one day to vote for senators. Because of their short-lived political life, these mayflies tend to be rather docile and are often very predictable voters.

So, although notionally all the members of the college have been elected by the people as local councillors, many in fact have not. These college members often follow orders from their political bosses, such as the local mayor or senior local figures.

In areas with quite small electorates, a senator can be elected with just 150 votes, as happened in Paris in 2011. This year, the Front National won a seat in the Bouches-du-Rhône department around Marseille with just 431 votes. The party’s other seat was secured in the neighbouring department of Var, where the mayor of Fréjus, David Rachline enters the senate on the back of 401 votes.

Will all these factors at play, the success of the right was largely predictable in this election. In spring this year the French went to the polls for municipal elections – the first time they had voted since electing Hollande to the Elysée. The left not only performed badly, but gave significant ground to the far right in city and town halls. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how the Front National has made it to the upper house this time round.

In the wake of the election, the UMP, the main right-wing party, made net gains of 15 and will expect to have 145 seats, while the Socialists lost 15 seats and ended up with a total of 113. Its not-always-reliable allies on the centre and far-left lost ten seats between them, retaining 30 seats in all. The Greens held all ten of their seats, which will be some comfort to Hollande.

The Front National has two seats but, more significantly, it secured nearly 4,000 votes across the country, a huge increase on the 700 votes it won in 2011. The centre-right UDI will also be delighted to have gained seven seats to hold 38 in total.

Presidential standby

These results will also have a significant impact on the impending election for a Senate speaker on October 1. This is an important office. In France, where there is no vice-president, the speaker steps in if a president resigns or dies.

Jean-Pierre Bel, the first ever socialist to preside over the upper house, did not stand for re-election. Indeed, he was one of 58 senators standing down, a far higher proportion than normal, but part of a trend in an institution that has seen great change in the past decade.

Bel’s successor could be former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin or the previous Senate Speaker Gérard Larcher. Both men are from the UMP, but the former’s support for the return of Nicolas Sarkozy as party president may well work against him. A third figure, UMP senator Philippe Marini, is in the running too.

Despite these results and whatever the outcome of the speaker vote, Hollande and his prime minister Manuel Valls can continue to govern because the National Assembly always trumps the Senate, unless a question of constitutional reform is on the table. But the Senate matters. It shows the direction of local councils and creates positions of power for a lot of people. It is, as one former right-wing minister once put it, “a formidable war machine”.

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