News / Europe

French Left's Election Wins Troublesome for Sarkozy

Jean-Pierre Bel, President of the Socialist Party group at the French Senate, speaks to the media in Paris, September 25, 2011.
Jean-Pierre Bel, President of the Socialist Party group at the French Senate, speaks to the media in Paris, September 25, 2011.
Lisa Bryant

France's leftist political parties have captured the Senate for the first time in more than half a century. While final results have yet to be released, analysts say leftist parties are believed to have won more than the 23 seats needed to gain a majority in the Senate. The left's victory is seen by some analysts as another setback for embattled conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of France's upcoming national election.

The French Senate has limited powers, and local lawmakers - not the the public - elect its 348 members. Still, France's left is casting the results from Sunday's vote as a harbinger of two bigger elections next year - for the presidency and lower house.

In an interview on France-Info radio, presidential hopeful Francois Hollande, of the main opposition Socialist party, said the win by the left did not simply mark a defeat for center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, but a real trauma. Even though less than half the Senate seats were contested, the conservatives lost control of the body for the first time in post-war French politics.

Not surprisingly, the ruling UMP party downplayed the fallout.

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said the results came as a disappointment, but not a surprise, for the conservatives. He said they reflected past setbacks on local issues - not the elections to come.

But it is clear Sarkozy's party is taking the vote as a warning. His prime minister, Francois Fillon, announced the battle for the 2012 elections has begun. And analysts like Steven Ekovich, of the American University of Paris, say they mark a clear setback for Sarkozy, who is already hampered by dismal popularity ratings and a string of political scandals implicating his party.

"This is not a good sign for Sarkozy. But you can never tell in politics. Elections have their own internal dynamics," said Ekovich.

France's National Assembly, or lower house, is dominated by the right. But having a Senate to the left is unlikely to produce the kind of political gridlock seen in the United States, for example, because the upper body has very limited influence on the National Assembly's legislation.

Other analysts warn against reading too much into France's Senate vote, noting that personality and national issues will matter much more in the presidential race.

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