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Sarkozy Senate Vote Loss Deals Blow Ahead of General Elections

President Nicolas Sarkozy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has demanded steps to curb commodity derivatives speculation, which he blames for driving up world food prices. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

The opposition Socialist Party’s victory in French Senate elections yesterday dealt another blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of next year’s general elections, even if it won’t affect his ability to govern.

The Socialists are set to take control of the Senate for the first time in the 53-year history of the Fifth Republic.

“The French Senate lacks the power and prestige of the U.S. Senate, yet this vote takes on presidential dimensions because it further feeds the sense that Sarkozy is unpopular,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Paris Political Studies Institute. “The Senate should be his natural constituency and yet, even among rural conservative voters, he’s contested.”

The French Senate is elected by local officials in a system that gives greater weight to rural districts over urban ones. Yesterday’s elections were to renew 170 out of the 348 seats. French senators serve six-year terms.

Final results won’t be known until French Caribbean islands report later today. Agence France-Presse has projected that the Socialist Party and its allies will hold a two-seat majority. The Senate elects its president Oct. 1, with current President Gerard Larcher opposed by Socialist candidate Jean-Pierre Bel.

The French Senate can send legislation back to the directly elected National Assembly, although it can’t overrule it.

“The impact on budgetary policy will be nil,” Dominique Barbet, senior economist at BNP Paribas, said in a note to clients after the vote. “It is only after the June 2012 general elections, when we know if the party of the newly elected president has a majority in both houses, that the situation can really be assessed.”

Call for Unity

In a seven-line statement, Prime Minister Francois Fillon recognized the left’s win, which he called “predictable,” and called for Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party to unite. France holds presidential elections next May and parliamentary elections in June.

Fillon and UMP Secretary General Jean-Francois Cope visited Sarkozy this morning.

Sarkozy’s UMP was beaten by the Socialist Party in March 2011 Cantonal elections and in March 2010 regional elections.

“Nicolas Sarkozy will go down as the president who lost the right’s majority in the Senate.” Francois Hollande, the leading candidate in the Socialist Party’s presidential primary said on LCI television. “It’s an omen for what will happen in 2012.”

Unpopular Sarkozy

Thirty-five percent of French voters rated Sarkozy’s leadership favorably in September, unchanged from August, according to the Ipsos poll for Le Point magazine released last week. The president’s popularity reached a record low of 29 percent in April, and has been lifted just slightly by his leadership of efforts to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

“Sarkozy hasn’t been able to turn his international successes into lasting popularity at home,” Dubois said. “Unemployment remains high and he’s wrapped up in various corruption affairs.”

Two of his associates were charged last week in a bribery probe. French law shields sitting presidents from being investigated and Sarkozy hasn’t been named in the probe.

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