For once the elections for France's second chamber, the Senate, offer a genuine guide to the state of play in the nation's politics. Usually these votes, in which senatorial candidates are voted for by existing Members of Parliament, mayors and regional and departmental or county councillors, simply reflect the mood of the past, of the result at the last local elections when the members of this tight-knit electorate were themselves voted into office. Yet this year everything has gone as it usually does – and this has caused a sensation.
The very fact that these Senate elections went as one would expect underlines the shattered illusions of the new ruling party, Emmanuel Macron's La République en Marche (LREM). The “Macron effect” was supposed to have swept all before it but has instead stalled in the face of that most anachronistic of symbols of the “old world” of French politics: the Senate. A mood of scepticism, fed by policies to reduce the number of state-aided employment contracts, a cut in local authority funding and a reform to residential taxation, persuaded this very particular electorate to vote along well-worn lines: the conservative Right and the centre went from 142 to 159 senators, the beleaguered Socialist Party limited the damage by holding on to 80 of its 86 seats and the French Communist Party could have enough seats to form its own group in the Senate.
Back in June LREM had hoped it would pick up dozens of seats thanks to the disarray in other parties after the presidential and National Assembly elections. By the start of September the party was still hoping to win 40, but after Sunday's vote it had to make do with just 27 seats out of the 29 existing senators who supported the new party. Meanwhile officials fell back on the argument that this election was not suited to a new party like theirs. What is clear that the political yearning that had led to hundreds of LREM MPs being elected in June did not work its magic on the senatorial electorate.
It has to be said that it is an election for political aficionados and insiders. The Senate poll chooses dignitaries picked by their peers, some powerful, some less so, inside a network of power and influence. The power possessed by Senators is an intangible one, mostly reduced to blocking constitutional reforms. Situated in a magnificent palace, the Senate is closeted away from everyday life, and in the past members have organised slush funds and arranged cosy deals between friends, as Mediapart has reported. But sometimes it plays an important role. Under the Constitution its president is number two in the state hierarchy after the president. Attempts to reform it have always been doomed, as Charles De Gaulle himself found to his cost in 1969.
Whenever anyone questions its prerogatives the Senate deploys its main argument: an attack on it would be an attack on provincial France (many of the senatorial voters are councillors and mayors from rural areas). If you attack its privileges and finery you will end up harming the fabric of ordinary rural France. The same argument has been used for years: though it is housed in the luxurious Luxembourg Palace, this elite institute of the Republic likes to portray itself as a humble son of the soil.
The performance of the ruling LREM in the Senate elections was the polar opposite of its sweeping victories back in June. The weekend's vote largely saw sitting senators voted back in, including former government ministers who had been ejected from office in the Assembly elections, the Community Party held on after a disastrous performance in June, the Socialist Party resisted well and the Right recovered some of the verve it had before François Fillon's disastrous showing in the presidential elections.
The government's omnipresent spokesman Christophe Castaner took to the airwaves to explain in detail how this was a vote whose likely outcome was known in advance, while admitting it was a setback. And it is a setback which heralds future difficulties.
One of the great uncertainties surrounding last weekend's elections was whether the outcome would allow the president to command a majority of three-fifths of all Parliamentarians, the required threshold for making constitutional changes. The answer is no. So it will not be easy for President Macron to get through his plans to reduce the number of MPs and Senators and the numbers of terms of office they can serve, unless he resorts to a referendum. And referendums are a major risk when the president is weak.
And that is the case with Emmanuel Macron.
So the period in which the Macron movement believed itself all-powerful came to a definitive end with the senatorial elections. But does that mean that the time has come for Macron's main opponents, the radical left La France Insoumise ('France Unbowed') led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon? That is far from certain.
During the formal vote of confidence for the new government at the National Assembly on July 4th Jean-Luc Mélenchon laid down a challenge and issued a warning: “We don't just want to be your opposition. We put ourselves forward as an alternative to the world that you represent. There has to be one. Because soon the ground beneath your feet will give way.”
In Marseille on August 27th Mélenchon detailed his intentions: “On September 23rd the people must surge on Paris against the antidemocratic social coup d'État that's being organised against them.”
They were strong words in a political speech that was picked up by all of the media. The verb “surge” (the word he used in French was déferler) and the expression “social coup d'État” have now entered public vocabulary, a bit like an expression Mélenchon used during a debate before the first round of the presidential election: he accused TV presenters of behaving with the “the coyness of a gazelle” (“pudeurs de gazelle”) in not highlighting the scandals that other candidates were involved in. This ability to lob distinctive expressions into the media arena is one of Mélenchon's strengths - and also one of his weaknesses. For if you speak loudly it implies the need for similarly strong actions.
Yet while the political ground has indeed “given way beneath the feet” of the new government, at the same time the movement which claims to be of the “people” has not consolidated its own political footing. On Saturday September 23rd the people of France did not surge upon Paris. According to the organisers of that day's demonstration the event attracted 150,000, the prefecture claimed it was 30,000 while the news magazine Marianne estimated the figure closer to 60,000. But these figures are of no great importance. For even if they had been double, even if the police had said that 300,000 people took part, the demonstration that Melenchon wanted, and which was joined by a large section of the Left and unions, could still not be said to have “surged” on the capital.
A “surge” of people to make the government back down would have meant crowds on a scale that would have rivalled those that helped thwart Alain Juppe when he was prime minister in 1995 or when premier Dominique de Villepin tried to bring in a new employment contract for young people in 2006. On such occasions the police spoke of a million on the streets and the organisers claimed three million. We are a long way from that at the moment and Jean-Luc Mélenchon is very well aware of that and is now portraying the demonstration as a taste of what is to come. The surge has been postponed to a later date with the promise of a million people on the Champs-Élysées.
The two duellists in this saga, the head of state and the man who claims to be the 'President of the Street' have both overestimated their strength. The former in a White House-style scene when he signed the decrees on labour law reform in front of the cameras in the glaring absence of the prime minister Édouarde Philippe, the latter by letting himself get carried away by his own rhetoric to claim, in defiance of all historical credibility, that it was the “street that defeated the Nazis”.
One has to be wary of the media beast, as others such as former President Nicolas Sarkozy have found. Forced to feed it constantly, you end up being devoured by it, sometimes by what journalist and now La France Insoumise MP François Ruffin recently called “stupid things”.
So LREM has stumbled in the face of the old political order represented by the Senate while the political movement against the new employment laws is finding it hard to get established. Does this mean that the social movement against this, and the issue of decrees being used to implement this labour law, is gone for good? Certainly not.
Though the opposition to the new labour law has not materialised – yet – in traditional protest marches, the reforms are too sensitive, and affect too many fundamental issues, just to be swiftly accepted. Democracy legitimacy is never a blank cheque.
In the early part of this week lorry drivers from the CGT and FO trade unions have been blocking fuel depots, a move which has led to some panic buying at petrol stations among motorists. On Thursday September 28th pensioners have been urged to protest against a hike of 1.7% in the CSG supplementary tax that is used to top up the social security budget. This comes after a three-year virtual freeze on pension increases. And on October 10th public sector workers will protest against the freeze on their pay scales and also against the return of unpaid sick leave.
At a time when the government is preparing a deeply sensitive reform of unemployment benefit, and as the weakness of the French government is highlighted by the Senate election results just as the outcome of the German election casts doubt over the social model that Emmanuel Macron dreams of for France, the wave of protests in France has gone beyond union rivalries and factional fighting inside the Left. These protests show that “the people”, that elusive entity often cited in political speeches, are more sceptical than ever, as shown by recent high abstention rates in elections. They are simply waiting for a spark to make their voices heard.
The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter.