For more than half a century, the French Senate has been dominated by conservatives. That reign, though, has now come to an end. On Sunday, control of the body, which serves as France's upper house of parliament, was handed to the Socialists for the first time since 1958, an election result which reflects widespread discontent with President Nicolas Sarkozy and his conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
Some 177 of the 348 Senate seats were up for vote on Sunday. The body is elected by 150,000 officials from throughout France.
Sarkozy's popularity has been sinking steadily amid economic uncertainty sparked by unemployment, slow growth and a huge budget deficit -- not to mention an ongoing corruption scandal recently linked to some of his aides. Though the UMP still maintains an edge in the National Assembly, the embarrassing loss of support in the upper house not only threatens the progress of Sarkozy's 2012 budget bill and a plan to insert a debt brake into the French constitution, but also casts doubt on his chances for re-election in presidential elections next spring.
"This clearly weakens Sarkozy. He was working to try and win back public opinion and this has undermined any progress there. It will handicap him," analyst Francois Miquet-Marty at Viavoice pollsters told news agency Reuters. "It raises doubts over whether he should even be the UMP's candidate next year."
Working on His Image
Even Sarkozy's grandstanding over the NATO victory in Libya and his unilateral efforts to rekindle Middle East peace negotiations before the United Nations have not helped him regain lost ground among the French. Economic concerns back home are too great, and opinion polls show the Socialist Party -- still licking its wounds after a sex scandal brought down their great hope Dominique Strauss Kahn -- would win a presidential race if it were held today.
Sarkozy is also at the mercy of ongoing efforts to prop up the euro. Both he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have much at stake as euro-zone parliaments consider a plan to enlarge the bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) this month and next. France has already passed the bill and German lawmakers are set to vote on it on Thursday in a highly anticipated parliamentary session.
On Tuesday, German commentators weighed in, with many saying the French president should look at the election defeat as a clear warning.
Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The election results show a dramatic shift in France: President Sarkozy has lost the heart of France.... Sarkozy can continue laboring on the international stage, freeing Libya, stirring up Middle Eastern policy and together with Angela Merkel, trying to save the euro -- none of that will do any good.... The man in the Élysée Palace must ask himself what happened to all the political capital he possessed in 2007. Back then, Sarkozy won not only the presidential election, but he also had a clear majority in both houses of parliament. He dominated the Gaullists and inspired great hope with his promise to modernize France."
"Right now it looks like the Socialists will win both the presidential and National Assembly elections. They would then have greater power in France than even (former Socialist President Francois) Mitterrand.... Still Sarkozy's fate must be a warning to the leftists against being too arrogant. The French could quickly withdraw their favor again -- and France will remain conservative at heart."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The left now has seven months to test out just how much clout the Senate has when it comes to blocking the president. The temptation to trip up Sarkozy at every chance is great."
"But systematic obstruction could quickly prove to be counterproductive for the left-wing opposition. If the new Senate majority is not in a position to make its own constructive suggestions, they are only helping the unpopular leader save face. Then he will simply say that his plans were sabotaged."
"If the Socialists think they can just sit back without positioning themselves personally, strategically and programmatically, then Sarkozy has nothing to be afraid of."
Berlin daily Die Tagesspiegel writes:
"The fact that the Socialists now have a majority (in the Senate) is not only interesting because it demonstrates an historical move to the left in France. The election debacle also means that Sarkozy must now bury every plan that he championed ... through August -- including the introduction of a debt brake based on the German model. With the Senate majority, the Socialists could also force corrections to the budget for the coming year, which Sarkozy had actually hoped to cut by some 11 billion. For Sarkozy it could become difficult to present himself to voters as a strongman who can continue governing in a cavalier manner."
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"The conservatives' historic Senate election loss is a slap in the face for Sarkozy.... Since Sarkozy was elected in 2007, the conservatives have lost every election, with the exception of the European Parliament election."
"Above all, the election result is a signal of country-wide irritation with Sarkozy.... If Sarkozy thought he could change this trend through foreign policy actionism, he was deceived. Neither the Libyan war nor his fervent proposals for a quick resolution to the Middle East conflict at the United Nations were able to perceptively increase his popularity. And now he has the problem that his last big project -- anchoring a debt brake in the constitution -- can't be passed because of the new majority in the Senate. If the president can't manage to convince his countrymen that he is the best person to lead them through the crisis, then France will be governed by a Socialist come May 2012."
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