President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives lost their majority in the Senate to the socialist opposition on Sunday. The ruling party’s defeat comes seven months before a presidential election is scheduled to take place in France.
Conservatives have controlled the upper chamber since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Senatorial elections are held every three years when half of the body’s members are appointed for six year terms by electoral colleges of representatives from departments in metropolitan France and overseas. The system usually benefits the political right which is more popular in the countryside.
The new socialist majority will not be able to derail Sarkozy’s agenda as the Senate can’t block legislation. The loss of a longstanding bastion for the conservatives is a symbolic setback however, especially as the president’s approval ratings are dismal.
Sarkozy’s failure to revitalize the economy has left French voters depressed about their economic prospects. Unemployment remains high and the European debt crisis has invited scrutiny of France’s public finances.
The International Monetary Fund warned in early August that France could miss its 3 percent deficit target for 2013 unless it implemented deeper spending cuts which it also needs to safeguard its coveted AAA credit rating.
The government unveiled a fresh austerity package last month which was almost entirely composed of tax increases with a mere €1 billion in spending reductions. The boost in revenue could close France’s fiscal gap but it’s unlikely to spur job growth. Instead, it may add to the regulatory uncertainly that is already prevalent in France where the state accounts for more than half of the national economy and continues to dominate entire industries including electricity, postal services and railways. The private labor market is burdened with rigid regulations that exacerbate unemployment and undermine France’s competitiveness within the eurozone.
The socialists blame Sarkozy’s austerity for France’s lackluster economic growth but the party’s presidential contenders have offered few specific policy alternatives so far. The frontrunners for the nomination, former party boss François Hollande and his successor Martine Aubry, both claim to favor fiscal consolidation but also want to increase public spending on education and welfare.
The left did well in March’s regional elections when it attained majorities in virtually all of France’s cantons. The conservatives won 20 percent of votes cast nationwide at the time while the socialist won 36 percent. The far-right Front national gained 12 percent and even polled at 17 percent earlier this year.