Unless you are an avid follower of French politics, you’re unlikely to know that the country is voting to renew half of the seats in the senate seats this Sunday. And if you were expecting a landslide from Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche (LRM), you are in for a surprise!
Of the 348 seats in the senate, 171 seats are at play in this election, distributed across 54 constituencies, whose numbers of senators is determined by population. Senators, who are in essence the voice of local and regional governments, will be elected by les ‘grands électeurs’, an electoral college composed of local councillors (95%), with the remaining 5% of the electorate being MPs, regional councillors and even other senators.
Two voting methods will be used to decide between the record number of 1971 candidates running this election. In some 18 constituencies, electors will vote for just one or two senators using the two-round majority system whereas in the other 26 constituencies, 3 or more senators will be elected using d’Hont proportional representation method.
In Paris, for instance, 2972 ‘grand electeurs’ will vote for 12 senators from the 13 party lists. To garner votes in this election then, no need for big TV or radio debates on local stations or leafleting in the market. Campaigning relies heavily on existing local networks of elected officials and consists solely of personal meetings between candidates and the local ‘grand electeurs’ while tasting local wine and discussing local issues.
Advantage to the centre-right, Les Republicains
The winning party of the senate election of 2014, the centre-right party, Les Republicans (LR), won back control of the upper house from the centre-left Socialist Party (PS) and its allies. The centre-right party and its allies currently have a majority of 184 seats with LR forming the biggest group with 142 seats. The centre-left parties, composed of the PS with its 86 seats, the Communist party with 18 and the European Democratic and Social party with its 16, form the opposition.
Following the victory at the legislative election, Macron set up a group at the senate, which now has 29 seats, with the aim of taking control of the upper house at this senatorial election.
But the electoral system does not favour his young party. Since senators are mostly elected by local councillors, and LRM did not participate in the last municipal election in 2014, Macron’s party does not have a solid network of local elected officials on which it can count to secure seats.
This advantage lies with the centre-right party, LR, the clear winner of the last local election in 2014. Additionally, Macron’s plan to exempt 80% of the population from council tax and his cuts to credits for local authorities, worth 300 million euros did not go down well with councillors who are already struggling to make ends meet.
Finally, only a third of seats hold by Les Republicains are at play, leaving them a safe 89 seats, while most of the 29 seats held by LRM are in play.
Given these circumstances, it seems unlikely that come Sunday night Macron’s centrist party will be the biggest group in the France’s upper chamber. Recent projections only give about 70 seats to LRM, compared with 130 seats for LR and party official now seem to have lowered their expectations.
Constitutional reforms at play
Not having control of the senate will have little impact on most of Macron’s planned reforms. Constitutionally, the role of the senate is limited and in the legislative process, the lower house, the national assembly, has the last word.
However, some changes of President Macron hopes to make, such as limiting the number of times MPs can stand for re-election in time or his plans for judicial reform, requires amendments to France’s constitution. Those changes can only happen through a referendum or a vote with a 3/5 majority of both houses of parliament combined, i.e. 555 votes out of 925 parliamentarians (MPs and senators). If Macron can already theoretically count of the vote of 395 votes of MPs in the lower house, he would thus need 160 senatorial votes to reach his majority.
Failing to elect a large enough LRM group in the senate or a sufficient number of senators of other parties who approve of Macron’s vision would end his plans for constitutional reform: the last thing a French president wants is to take a huge gamble and fight a referendum that would quickly descend into a popular vote on his government so far.