President François Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party lost its majority in the French Senate on Sunday. Marine Le Pen’s Front national won its first two seats in the upper chamber but the majority went to the mainstream conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire.
Le Pen, who succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, as party leader three years ago, hailed the result as a “great victory, an absolutely historic victory” which she said would represent a “breath of fresh air in a rather sleepy chamber.”
Polls suggest Le Pen, who campaigns for lower immigration and a French withdrawal from the European single currency, could beat Hollande in a theoretical runoff. However, the political comeback of former conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy has poured cold water on the nationalist politician’s presidential prospects. If they were to face off in a second voting round in 2017, Sarkozy, who is yet to be elected party leader, is the more likely winner.
Low growth and stubbornly high unemployment have caused Hollande’s popularity to plummet. Whereas he defeated Sarkozy with 52 percent support in the 2012 election, his approval ratings now hover between 13 and 17 percent.
Only three years ago did the left win an upper house majority for the first time since Charles de Gaulle founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958. The Socialists governed in coalition with the Greens and were backed by communists.
The Greens, however, pulled their support from Hollande’s government when he named Manuel Valls prime minister in April. Valls, a centrist whose appointment was seen as an attempt on Hollande’s part to reassure businesses, came to power after the Socialists lost the municipal elections the month before.
The Socialists also lost the European Parliament elections in May when the Front national got almost 25 percent of the votes. The Union pour un mouvement populaire came in second with 20 percent support.
The loss of his upper house majority need not derail Hollande’s government. The Senate is unable to block legislation. But it does mark a further setback.
Senatorial elections are held every three years when half of the body’s members are chosen for six year terms by electoral colleges of representatives from departments in metropolitan France and overseas. The system benefits the political right which is stronger in the countryside.