I’m not sure what it says about the two cultures that what the British call a pie chart the French call a camembert. In any case, last Sunday’s (24th September 2017) elections upper house outwardly did very little to change the shape of the French senatorial cheese. The election was, however, a disappointment for Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LRM) and a major boost for the main right wing party, Les Républicains (LR). It also provided a small crumb of comfort for the Parti Socialiste (PS) and even the Communists were relieved to hold on to enough seats (ten) to constitute a parliamentary group. Neither of the populist parties, La France Insoumise and the Front National, made any inroads.
The two camemberts further down this post show the overall shape of the Senate before and after the election, when 171 of its 348 seats were renewed. At the time of writing (27-28 September), the balance of the Senate’s groups has not been formalised, but we can make some tentative comments on the results, and what they mean for the government and the parties going into the rentrée parlementaire.
I’ll start with the numbers and then do the interpretive stuff. I’ll look at a few departments and the results as case studies of how Senate elections work in my next blog post, because there are things to say about them that deserve their own time and explanation. In the meanwhile, the Senate’s own interactive map, with the results, can be found here.
Much of what I will say in this first section is based on this piece from Le Monde.
Among the outgoing cohort of 169 (two of the seats were vacant), 71 (42%) had decided not to stand again. 69 sortants were re-elected and 29 defeated, which suggests that the prime au sortant, the advantage for an outgoing candidate, is still strong in the upper house. This was emphatically not the case in June, with the election to the National Assembly. The average age of the cohort is 58, bring down the overall average to 60. The youngest senator is the Front National’s David Rachline, who is now 29 and was elected in 2014 for the Provençal department of the Var. The doyen d’âge (father of the house) is Gérard César, the 82 year-old senator for the Gironde (Bordeaux). (On the caricatures surrounding senators’ age, gender etc, see Le Monde here.)
One third of the class of 2017 are sénatrices, (57 women to 114 men) which means that women now represent an unprecedented 29% of the upper house, but well behind the 39% that députées make up in the National Assembly. (I'll also say something about parity and Senate elections in my next post.)
What, then, of the shape of the old and new Senates?
You will notice, dear reader, that the two camemberts below do not use the same labels. The Sénat sortant graph uses the names of the groupes parlementaires, the nouveau Sénat one has combined the group membership with party affiliations: membership lists do not have to be submitted until 3 October. Thus, in the second, it looks like there are, for the first time, three Green senators (EELV) in the Luxembourg Palace. This is misleading. The Ecologists were members of the Socialiste et Républicain group before the election. Similarly, the two FN senators elected in 2014 are invisible in the first graph, wrapped up under the heading divers. The FN won no more seats in 2017, so it remains at two, as shown in the second graph.
I mentioned in my previous entry on the Senate elections, that back in the summer Macron had appointed François Patriat, a former PS, now LRM senator for the Burgundian department of the Côte-d’Or, to set up an LRM group. Back then, the talk was not so much of building an LRM majority in the Senate, but hopefully gaining enough defections and seats to be the second largest, behind the LR group. By stages, over the summer, that optimism had dwindled to the expectation, voiced by Patriat himself, that LRM would come out of the election with between 20 and 30 seats.
And thus it has turned out. With very little presence in the municipal councils elected in the spring of 2014 and reliant therefore on defections from other groups, LRM and its MoDem allies number just 28 in the new upper house. This number might grow. It depends how many senators from the parties to the left and right of LRM might be persuaded to join that group when memberships have to be declared next week. There might be a few among the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants who opt for the LRM group instead and there might also be some macronistes among the divers droite and the divers gauche.
Electoral analysts expect most of the divers droite senators to join the ranks of the LR or the Union Centriste (UDI) groups. And they (the new intake) would be very wise to, since seats on the Senate’s commissions, its legislative standing committees, are allocated according to group size. Similarly, although the interests of minority groups in the upper house are respected, the allocation of seats on the Senate’s executive bureau (speaker, deputy-speakers etc), will see the lion’s share go to the largest group and its allies.
And on the subject of the Senate’s executive bureau, Sunday’s election was a quiet but overwhelming triumph for the speaker Gérard Larcher, at several levels. In French politics, the position of speaker (of either house) is by no means neutral, but there are aspects of the role specific to the speaker (président) of the upper house that make the role unlike that of the lower. In the Senate, although the speaker is the président de tous les sénateurs, he is also the head of the majority in a chamber where no one group has sole control. And because Senate elections are held on a rolling basis, when the speaker is standing for re-election in his department, the success or failure of his group and its allies can have a major impact on the re-election as speaker, which happens the week after the renouvellement.
Larcher won big. In his own department, the Yvelines (78 on the map below) his list made a gain of one seat, taking five of the six on offer, while the LRM list took the sixth. And while we cannot be entirely sure yet what the final results mean in terms of the size of the LR group, the ball-park figure being suggested is a net gain of 17 seats, rising to 159 members and the UC to 50.
Had Les Républicains lost seats, Larcher’s position would have been more fragile, although there are few potential replacements with his influence in either the Senate or the party. Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s retirement from parliament removed one of the handful of potential rivals, as did Michel Mercier’s ultimately aborted move to the Constitutional Council. Larcher was first elected to the office in 2008, but in 2011 a swing to the left brought the Fifth Republic its only Socialist speaker since 1958 (Jean-Pierre Bel 2011-2014). The collapse of the Socialists in 2014’s municipal elections saw the majority in the upper house shift back to the right and Larcher became the speaker again.
Larcher’s victory gives him as its speaker, and the right-wing majority in the Senate renewed confidence when negotiating cuts to local government funding in particular and the government’s reforms more broadly speaking. In party terms, the endorsement of Larcher by les grands électeurs will reinforce his position in the debate over the LR leadership contest. A long-term filloniste, to the point that some thought of him as a potential prime minister, Larcher was aghast when the Penelopegate scandal broke and attempted at various points to use his good offices to broker a deal that might salvage the presidential campaign for the right. Larcher will not stand in his own right for the leadership of Les Républicains, but he will be able to use his position as leverage with whoever wins in December.
For Les Républicains, it’s a consolation prize for losing presidential and general elections they were meant to win. Twelve months ago, right-wing senators thought they were the vanguard of a process that would see their party take control of all three institutions . It might not seem like much of consolation on the face of it, but the Senate is where the right reinvented and rebuilt itself during the Mitterrand years. Whatismore, the next national elections in France are the municipal elections in 2020 (the stakes at the 2019 European elections will not be the same) and while LRM will be focussing on trying to turn itself into a party that can win seats on France’s 35,000 village, town and city councils, LR will be doing their best to resist.
The left also has reason to feel satisfied with Sunday’s outcome. Firstly, the Communists have held on to their ten seats and will form a group, with party secretary Pierre Laurent retaining his seat in Paris. And also in the capital, where LRM did particularly well in the general elections, the PS nevertheless managed to hold onto four of its five seats. Nevertheless, the Socialists are pulled between the temptations of macronisme and those who see the Senate group (which is now larger than the Socialist group in the National Assembly) as the locus for the reconstruction of the party, independent of either LRM or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. At a more prosaic level, PS party managers will be relieved to be getting their hands on the 70-odd slices of €36,000 they will get per senator.
As for the government, the results are a setback and a disappointment. The Senate cannot block ordinary legislation: the National Assembly has the last word and French constitution gives the government an array of levers to pull and buttons to push if it needs to get laws passed. But the Senate does have a strong sense of itself and a tradition of scrutinising and amending laws badly made. This is part of what we sometimes call its ‘institutional mystique’, along with its vocation to protect the collectivités territoriales. At the symbolic level, the defeat gives a more tangible sense to the rapid decline in the popularity of the administration. Macron can fulminate all he likes against the ‘ancien monde’ that voted on Sunday.
More to the point, the government has in mind, as one of its grands projets for 2018, to revise the constitution with a view to reducing the number of deputies and senators and also to ‘constitutionalize’ the number of terms of office a member of parliament can serve.
There are two mechanisms for revising the constitution: Article 11 and Article 89. Under the second of these, a bill must pass through both houses in identical form before it is then put before the two, meeting together (at Versailles) as le congrès. At that point, the bill for revision must achieve a three-fifth majority, that is to say be approved by 555 deputies and senators. Now, on Sunday, the prospect of even getting the bill through the Senate evaporated, let alone finding 555 votes in congress. There might be a pro-government bloc of left- and right-wing macroncompatibles, but it probably won't be big enough to push reform through by itself.
Macron and PM Edouard Philippe might now decide to activate Article 11, which allows the President to put a bill concerning reform of the organisation of les pouvoir publics, the institutions of the Republic, directly to the people by referendum, with the understanding that a vote in the head of state’s favour means the government is authorised to execute the reform and tying parliament’s hands.
But referenda are a risky business. Macron and Philippe would need to be sure they could win and it would be difficult for the process not to become one massive national vote of confidence. General de Gaulle tried it in 1969, lost and consequently resigned.
It may be, however, that there is a trade-off to be made between the new Senate and the government, whereby the cuts to local government funding are watered-down in exchange for Larcher and the leaders of the majority in the upper house finding enough support for constitutional reform. Larcher himself has spoken of Sunday’s result as a platform for more reasonable discussions between the executive and the Senate. And it is worth remembering that most of the candidates for the presidential election in the spring advocated parliamentary reform along similar lines to Macron.