On Sunday 24 September, some 75,000 members of the departmental colleges that elect French senators will cast their votes to elect 171 of the 348 seats in the French upper house (170 per schedule plus a byelection in Savoie). Back in June, in the rosy glow of his victories in the presidential and general elections, Emmanuel Macron and his followers optimistically hoped that La République en Marche (LRM) might secure a significant number of seats. Now, it looks less likely. The government's announcement that, while the health and education budgets will be largely protected, significant savings will have to be made in local government (in the region of 13 billion euros between now and 2022), have gone over poorly in France's 35,000 communes, the bedrock of the Senate's electoral colleges.
While the Senate's legislative powers are less than those of the National Assembly - it can slow down the legislative process, but not block ordinary legislation, though it can prevent constitutional reform - it has a fundamental role to play in the legislative process, a role that is of far greater prominence than, say, the British House of Lords. (Mother of Parliaments? You're having a laugh.) It is also, by dint of its constitutional vocation to represent the collectivités territoriales (the various levels of local administration), regarded by France's 500,000 local councillors as their assembly. Local councillors are known as les élus, senators as les élus des élus. It is no accident that, more often than not, the influential Association des Maires de France has elected a senator as its president.
The Senate is elected by half every three years and senators serve a six-year term, the same as their electorate. The term used to be nine-years and renewed by thirds every three, but that changed in 2003, as part of the French right’s promise to ‘modernise’ politics and was closely linked to the reduction of the presidential term to five years. The shift from nine to six was managed over the next few renouvellements and the Senate switched from three electoral series named A, B and C to two, called Series 1 and Series 2.
The old, three-series system was simply based on a three-way, alphabetical split of the departments, so there was never any geographical logic to the process and the reduction to two series was simply achieved by splitting the old Series C into two –the Paris region on the one hand, the other departments on the other, and adding one to series A and the other series B. Series 1, which is up for re-election on Sunday, is made up of the Paris region and the old Series B and was last elected in 2011.
Territorial senators* are elected by a departmental college comprised of two groups. The first are to all intents and purposes ex officio members. These include outgoing senators, the department’s deputies, the department's regional councillors and all the members of the departmental assembly. They are joined by delegates of the department’s municipal councils, whose number is determined by a sliding scale for each commune. (*There are also 12 senators for French expatriates, six of whom are up for re-election.)
Municipal delegates make up the overwhelming majority of electors – 96% of Sunday’s colleges nationally, according to the Interior Ministry figures, though the proportion varies from one department to another.
The number of delegates per commune depends only indirectly on population size, filtered through the size of municipal council. Thus, communes with a population of up to 499, which have councils of between 7 and 11 members, have one delegate (usually it's the mayor) and so on up the scale to communes of 8999 inhabitants, which have 29 councillors and send 15 delegates.
Communes of more than 9000 inhabitants and up to 30,000 have councils ranging from 29 to 35 members, all of whom are ex officio delegates. For larger towns and cities, there is then a process of electing supplementary delegates, at the rate of one per complete tranche of 800 inhabitants over 30,000. In this way, the college for Paris numbers very nearly 3000 electors, although the city council, which also serves as the departmental assembly, only accounts for 163 seats. The election/co-option of these électeurs d’un jour, what I call ‘mayfly electors’ is profoundly problematic, but I shall pass on it here. Suffice to say that the ability of some mayors to supply reliable blocks of voters to one candidate/list or another can have a signficant impact on the outcome, especially under PR.
The colleges meet in the chef-lieu of the department. Those electing just one or two senators do so using a majority system with up to two rounds of voting. The first opens at 8.30 and closes at 11.00. If a second is required, that begins at 3.30 in the afternoon and closes two hours later. In departments electing three or more senators, a system of highest remaining average PR is used. Here, the ballot is open from 9.00 till 3.00. A list system is used, with an equal number of men and women on the list, to comply with parity legislation. The lists must also contain the names of x+2 candidates, where x is the number of seats to be filled, in order to cover resignations, appointment to government and so forth. Where the majority system is used, canddiates must name a suppléant or running mate to fulfil that role.
In the first instance, a quotient is applied to attribute seats and a highest remaining average thereafter. It corresponds to what the psephologists among you will recognise as the d’Hondt formula (V/(s+1) where V is the number of votes and s the number of seats already attributed under the quotient.) I’ll explain that with some live examples after the election.
There is an excellent interactive map of the série available on the Senate's website here. I have reproduced it as a screen shot above. The map is simple enough to read. The departments in the deeper yellow are those electing their senators by PR, the lighter shade those using the majority system. The numbers on the departments refer to their numéro minéralogique, which corresponds to their alphabetical ordering. This year's election features more candidates (and lists) than ever before (and this is a trend that I have watched expanding renouvellement on renouvellement for more than two decades.) There are 1971 candidates for the 171 seats. Among these are 273 candidates who failed to get elected to the National Assembly in June. Of these, 108 are standing for the Front National, recycling champions for 2017.
As we can see from the map, beyond the Ile de France, the election covers two departments in the North (Nord and Pas-de-Calais), a significant slice of Champagne and Lorraine, a chunk of Normandy, and much of the lower Loire valley, from the Loiret (45) to Loire-Atlantique (44). Apart from the Paris region, the election also features a number of France’s larger cities, including Lille (59), Nantes (44), Clermont Ferrand (63), St Etienne (42) and Grenoble (38). Also the number of seats varies enormously, from just one seat in rural Lozère to 11 in the Nord and 12 in Paris. If you use the interactive map, you can click on each department to look at the number of seats for election (sièges à pourvoir) and also see the names of the lists registered and the candidates. You'll notice that not all of them use a party name. In the Puy-de-Dôme (63) for example, the LRM list is called Agir Ensemble pour Nos Collectivités... Decoding the names is not an easy business by any means, but the FN ones mostly include a reference to the 'rassemblement bleu marine'. So clever...
Part of the problem for Macron and LRM is that the colleges are comprised of electors who owe him nothing. They were elected in the municipales of spring 2014, when the then UMP did well against the already declining Socialists and where, especially in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais, but also in eastern France, the Front National also made unprecedented gains. The FN gained its first ever seats in the upper house at the renouvellement of Series 2 in September 2014 and will be looking to build on that. Unlike the National Assembly, where the threshold for group status is 15, in the Senate, with fewer seats, it is ten. But above all, the Senate's electorate insulates it from sudden changes of majority - rightly or wrongly. Even de Gaulle couldn't conjure up a majority in the upper house in 1959, when he had the whole house re-elected.
Les Républicains (LR), successor to the UMP, holds the whip hand in most of the departments and will be hoping that it can steady its ship after the disappointments of the spring and early summer. Indeed, the party has postponed the election of a new leader to give its candidates a free run at the Senate. In French local politics, the bulk of councillors are non-aligned, but generally regarded as divers droites - on the moderate right. So one might think they could be swing towards the government just as easily as towards LR. It's not straightforward.
The graphic above (apologies for the blurriness) comes from the Senate website and shows the political shape of the Senate on the eve of the renouvellement. You'll have spotted straightaway the 29 members of the LRM group, chaired by François Patriat, senator for the Côte-d'Or, who was tasked with forming a group from exisiting senators. Most of this 29 come, like Patriat, from the Socialist group, though there are also some from the centre-left Rassemblement Démocratique et Social Européen (RDSE). The Union Centriste, mostly comprising members of the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants party, has generally held firm, despite its profession of macroncompatibilité. The same is true of LR, the largest single group in the upper house and which, with its UC allies in 2014, was able to take back the speakership, in the formidable shape of Gérard Larcher, after three years under a Socialist.
What the above graphic doesn't reveal is that it is actually the Socialist group as well as LRM that are the most vulnerable this time around, in the sense that they have more seats in the outgoing series. The print version of Le Monde for 4 September published a very useful graphic which I have reproduced below. I haven't been able to find an online version of this. (The by-election in Savoie is not included here.)
At a glance, you can see the number of seats up for re-election and which group holds them at present. Of LRM's 29 senators, 19 are in Sunday's election.
As the lustre on Macron's presidency has diminished and as cuts to local government budgets have been announced, so LRM's election specialists have revised their predictions for Sunday downwards. At one point, there was talk of a group of 90 LRM senators as the pivot of a pro-government majority reaching out to the RDSE, the UC and even LR, but more recently Patriat has been quoted as modestly hoping that LRM will have the second largest group in the upper house. It might happen, but LRM's potential allies have sat tight and pursued their own campaigns. The negotiations need only start once the electoral dust has settled and will focus around the attribution of key posts in the upper house. For Macron and his PM Edouard Philippe, the magic number is 555, the total number of deputies and senators they need to support a vote on constitutional reform in a joint meeting of the two houses as Congress. Otherwise, they will have to put some of the changes they want to make to a referendum, and that is risky.
Macron's LRM will not be alone, however, in watching anxiously as the results are announced at the Luxembourg Palace on Sunday evening. While LR has fewer outgoing senators than the other groups, it will hope that its experience and presence on the ground is enough to deliver votes where it matters and then to ensure that Larcher retains the presidency. To that end, François Baroin, mayor of Troyes, president of the Association des Maires de France and senator for the Aube (a seat he will have to relinquish under the new rules for holding multiple offices) has this week been out campaigning in 'les territoires oubliés', a theme shamelessly stolen from the FN, trying to secure them from the encroachments of Le Pen's party.
Within the LR, however, there are dissensions over what happens next. Macroncompatibles LR and UC senators have already signalled their intention to set up their own group, as their colleagues in the National Assembly have done, though perhaps not under the title of Les Constructifs. At the same time, party is profoundly divided over who will be its next leader. In this regard, the election of the speaker will be less instructive than that of the group's own chair. The current LR president, Bruno Retailleau, senator for the Vendée, was one of François Fillon's most loyal supporters, even through the worst of Penelopegate, and is closer in outlook to Laurent Wauquiez and the identitaire wing of the party than its centre.
Then there are the imponderables of the Front National, which is, as I mentioned above, well-placed in the North and East (and watch out for Lot-et-Garonne too), and also La France Insoumise (FI). It's sometimes forgotten that Jean-Luc Mélenchon was, from 1986 until 1995 and again from 2005 until 2010 Socialist senator for the Essonne, a position he owed, essentially, to Socialist electors in the department voting for him en bloc. His party will hope to make gains in the North, the Paris region, and in both the Loire (42) and Isère (38).