French left claims Senate win in poll blow for Sarkozy

25th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

France's left-wing opposition won an historic victory in senatorial elections Sunday, in a blow to centre-right leader President Nicolas Sarkozy seven months before he is to seek re-election.

The Socialist Party announced that, with its Communist and Green allies, it had won enough seats to take control of the upper house for the first time in modern French history, and its leaders were in buoyant mood.

"The left has for the first time managed to win a handover," declared the Socialists' leader in the Senate and thus the probable next speaker of the house, Jean-Pierre Bel, as poll results trickled in from across France.

Green leader Cecil Duflot, national secretary of Europe-Ecologie Les Verts (EELV), described the vote as a "historic moment in the Fifth Republic" and as a victory for her movement, which added to its own seat count.

Right-wing parties have controlled the Senate since the Fifth Republic was founded by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and any flip to the left would break the momentum of Sarkozy's unannounced re-election campaign.

The Senate is not chosen by universal suffrage but by a "super-electorate" of elected officials -- around 72,000 mayors, local and regional councillors, voting for figures on the basis of regional lists.

Around half the seats in the 348-strong house were up for grabs in the poll, and the left needed to add only 22 more seats to win a majority.

With many centrists, independents and non-party figures in the upper house, it might be a few days before the exact division of forces becomes clear.

The outgoing speaker, UMP stalwart Gerard Larcher, said before the vote that he was confident of maintaining at least a six- to 12-seat margin to win re-election to his post on October 1 when the new chamber meets.

But Bel now expects to gather enough votes to unseat him.

The right did not initially admit defeat, with results still coming in, but the mood in Sarkozy's camp was decidedly more sombre.

Budget Minister Valerie Pecresse said she regretted the result and said she was "sad" for Larcher and his team.

Claude Goasguen, a UMP lawmaker from Paris, admitted his party had had a bad day in the capital. "We have to take on board the consequences quickly," he said, calling for a root-and-branch renewal of the Paris party.

And the mood in the country appeared to have already had direct political consequences, with Pecresse confirming the threshold for top rate income tax might be brought lower.

The Senate vote has no direct bearing on next April's presidential poll, which will be open to all French voters and conducted over two rounds, the second a head-to-head run-off between the best placed candidates.

But defeat is an ill omen for Sarkozy, whose party is already nervous about his low poll ratings and the ongoing economic and financial crisis.

Sarkozy has attempted to play on his foreign policy credentials as the current leader of the G8 and G20 great power blocs and the main foreign champion of the Libyan revolution that toppled Moamer Kadhafi.

But whatever glory he may have picked up on the international stage has been drowned out at home by the implication of his closest allies in a series of high-level corruption and party-funding scandals.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains high and France's financial sector has found itself under attack on the markets, where traders fear its banks are overexposed to risky Greek and Italian debts.

© 2011 AFP

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