Historic Win By French Left Further Darken Sarkozy’s 2012 Re-Election Hopes

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With just seven months to go before general elections, France’s unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy has gotten another signal of just how difficult his effort to retain the Elysée will be. That reminder came in voting on Sunday, when French leftists took control of the upper house of parliament for the first time since France’s Fifth Republic was founded in 1958. To be sure, the Sénat is the weaker of the two chambers, and the powers its leftist majority will have to complicate the life of Sarkozy, his government, and the wider ruling right will be limited. Yet if Sarkozy’s conservative allies do have credible reasons for minimizing the direct consequences of the left’s historic upper house win, they’d be unwise to ignore the development as another serious warning that the president’s 2012 re-election—and the right’s own hold on power—is increasingly looking like a long shot.

In other words, this development isn’t synonymous with “game over”; but it is another resounding triumph by opponents who’ve been regularly beating up a groggy and vulnerable Team Sarko as France heads into its 2012 electoral money time.

So, what actually happened? Led by the surging Socialist Party, French leftists picked up 26 Sénat seats that were up for grabs in Sunday’s election—a gain handing the left two more than the absolute majority it needed to control the 348-seat chamber. But because the upper house operates under complex and convoluted rules (including election by local and regional office holders, rather directly by voters) it’s unclear whether a Socialist will be chosen to preside the Sénat Oct. 1, or whether its current conservative occupant will retain his position. The battle for swing votes from centrists and moderate leftists to decide that contest will be as fierce as the stakes are high: the holder of that post is first in line to assume leadership in case the president dies or is incapacitated. Obtaining the Sénat’s presidency would also make setting policy and activity agenda easier for the chamber’s new leftist majority—or, conversely, allow minority rightists disrupt if they can retain the position. At stake, then, is just how free and efficient a hand triumphant leftists will have in opposing Sarkozy and his rightist supporters as both sides seek to use the levers of governing to their respective advantage in the run up to 2012 campaigning.

Even that, however, is not a zero sum struggle, and either way it goes, France doesn’t risk legislative or political gridlock. The conservative-dominated lower house can, if need be, vote texts into laws that it feels were unacceptably altered or bogged down by leftist Senators. This is something Sarkozy’s allies have been loudly pointing out as they minimized the impact of Sunday’s vote. Rightists say that outcome was expected (albeit disappointing), and called it more of a knock-on effect of the left’s huge gains in municipal and regional elections in recent years, rather than any public expression of disgust with their national leadership. They also vowed to stay what they insist is the wise and efficient policy course Sarkozy and his government have applied for over four years, and would simply steamroll any trouble Sénat leftists might toss their way.

As such, that line represented a veritable concerto of confident whistling in what’s becoming a really scary graveyard for France’s right. The Sénat’s limited powers and odd procedures notwithstanding, loss of the upper house is not only a serious (not to mention historic) blow to French conservatives, but also a significant repudiation of France’s ruling right that will have major consequences in the weeks to come. It not only constitutes a considerable political set back for conservatives, but another sign in a long series that France wants a change in leadership as it heads towards the presidential and legislative contests next spring.

Despite minor improvement in his record-setting poor approval ratings recently, Sarkozy’s leadership is still frowned upon by around 2/3 of voters. That’s the worst handicap any French president has faced going into elections in memory—and it’s dragging Sarkozy’s fellow conservatives down with him. Because if Sunday’s indirect election of more leftist Senators was indeed a reflection of the left’s triumphs at local and regional levels in the past few years, those contests, too, were shaped in large part by the souring of French voters on the right’s rule nationally—and Sarkozy’s omnipotent direction of it in particular. Following Sunday’s result, we can probably expect conservative losers in that contest to echo complaints after earlier drubbings from rightist parliamentarians who lost their seats due to what they said was to public anger over the president’s leadership—and his unwillingness to acknowledge it. If so, it won’t be the first time, and might well be taken up by other legislators running for re-election next year fearful their own spots are being held hostage to Sarkozy’s apparent disdain of voter unhappiness.

Indeed, alarm after huge leftist wins in municipal and regional polling repeatedly inspired complaints about the president from concerned conservative politicians who used to tremble in fear of sparking his ire. As a result, rightists not only stepped up to criticize or decry presidential initiatives positions that proved ill-advised—and often taken despite their opposition—but in some cases even went so far as to question Sarkozy’s ability to win re-election. With poll after poll showing the president losing the 2012 campaign—or, worse still, not even qualifying for the run-off round in it—questions began arising within the right about whether it wouldn’t be wisest to dump Sarkozy and replace him with a more popular conservative candidate with better chances of winning the Elysée.

There was also something of that division, dissent, and resentment over Sarkozy’s it’s-all-about-me leadership at work in Sunday’s result as well. Several Sénat races were shaped by rightist who ran despite having been spots as official candidates by the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party. Some of those rival campaigns split the rightist field to the benefit of leftists, while other renegade conservatives won seats of their own—often with considerable symbolism. Newly-elected conservative Senator Pierre Charon—who until recently had an office in the Elysée as an advisor to Sarkozy–was thrown out of the UMP after insisting on running after the party denied him an official spot. His victory represented a virtual rebellion against a UMP leadership beholden to Sarkozy’s presidential interests—a coup replicated by other rival rightist who defeated official UMP candidates, including an incumbent Senator and Sarkozy intimate from the president’s power center outside of Paris.

Those electoral follies were only the most recent developments to buffet Sarkozy’s political fortunes. The president and his cabinet have also been dogged by a series of scandals and allegations that have reached right into Sarkozy’s own office. Last week, meanwhile, inquiries into a 2002 terror bombing led to three Sarkozy intimates—two of them former advisers. The trio was placed under legal investigation into claims they’d moved illegal kickback funds around that arose from a defense contract thought to have been linked to the 2002 attack. Suspicions in the case have now struck so close to Sarkozy that editorialists are now referring to it as an affair of state—and an additional threat to the president’s re-election bid.

Sarkozy has adamantly denied any wrongdoing or involvement with corruption in that case, as well as other dramas now engulfing the Elysée, former staffers, and his backers. He also reportedly remains bullish on his chances to win re-election despite the string of electoral set backs, divisions within the right, his dismal approval ratings, and never-ending scandal reports. He’ll need that to get through the next seven, doubtless heady months.

Because in addition to exploiting rifts among disgruntled conservatives and weighing in on proposed laws its opposes, the new leftist Sénat majority can probably be counted on to do something else the conservative-held lower house has refused to thus far: hold parliamentary hearings on serious scandals involving the Elysée. In doing so, those committees would not only legally force any and all actors in those inquiries to testify at the risk of contempt charges if they refuse, but also render their findings public—actions that secret and diffident hearings in the lower house have not taken. It all adds up to challenges—or even threats—to Sarkozy’s re-election bid that may not add up to “game over” just yet, but certainly allows France’s left to feel more confident in declaring “game on”.