In the Shadow of the French Senate Elections – Another Defeat for Emmanuel Macron?

By Jeanette Süß, with the support of Oscar Lange

When Emmanuel Macron was elected French President by a large majority on 7 May 2017 and his party La République En Marche (“LREM”) won elections in the National Assembly, many observers were amazed by this strong performance. A political movement that had so openly campaigned for election with classic liberal policy proposals such as simplifying the bureaucracy for companies or demands for tax cuts was not expected to achieve this success in France, where the role of the state is uncontested. The German liberals, too, had well-founded hopes at that time for a resurgence of political liberalism on the old continent.

Today, more than three years later, LREM is in a deep crisis. This is once again demonstrated by the resignation of the party’s deputy leader Pierre Person a few days before the senatorial elections, which will be held on 27 September. In addition, the numerous resignations of LREM deputies in the National Assembly paint a torn picture of the governing party. Besides LREM, however, there are other centrist forces in France, mostly splinter parties that have formed alliances. The main representatives of these small parties are the conservative-centrist UDI (Union des Démocrates et Indépendants) and the coalition party of the MoDem government (Mouvement Démocratique). In the run-up to the elections, UDI has tried to position itself as a stable alternative to the governing coalition, and in some areas has moved closer to the conservative Républicains to the extent that it supports the conservative candidate. The president of UDI was quoted in early September as saying that MoDem was only spending its time trying to steal LREM’s MPs.

UDI has good reasons to look forward to the upcoming senatorial elections. The second French chamber is not elected by the people, but by an electoral college composed mainly of regional officials. The members of the municipal councils (Conseils municipaux) have a special role to play here, as they make up the bulk of the electoral body. Since conservative majorities govern many rural regions, the Senate also has a strong tendency towards a conservative-centrist majority. For this reason, the faction of conservative-centrist forces is actually the third largest faction in the Senate after the conservatives and the socialists. After the poor results in the local elections this spring, LREM cannot hope to win a major sting in the Senate elections. It remains to be seen whether the Greens, who were the big winners in the local elections, will be able to benefit from this in the Senate elections.

As important as the Senate election is as a barometer of the mood in rural France, the Senate majority is not important for the political agenda. The Senate’s control rights are limited to weaker instruments such as government polls. The National Assembly can overrule a Senate veto at any time. The Senate thus remains more of a symbol for the representation of rural France. Thus, for the current term of office, Macron does not need to worry about a poor performance in the Senate. However, a clear defeat would be detrimental to his campaign for re-election.

Jeanette Süß

European Affairs Manager at FNF Europe