As a citizen of France, I have never considered running for office — except maybe for the Senate. My country’s upper house of parliament is located at the Luxembourg Palace, a 17th century building right in the middle of the Luxembourg Gardens, the most beautiful park in Paris. The best bookshops and cafés are just at hand on the Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain boulevards. Quite tempting, I must say.
In addition, senators are elected for six years, and lead rather quiet, if dignified, lives. The French Senate is not the U.S. Senate. And not even the German Bundesrat. A minor partner in the legislative process, it may submit amendments. And that’s it. The last word belongs to the so-called lower house: the National Assembly. Or to the executive, which enjoys considerable powers and prerogatives and in fact initiates most legislation in France.
Things were very different in the past. Under the Third Republic, the upper house, elected by local assemblies for nine years, was as important as the lower, the Chambre des Députés (House of Representatives), elected by the whole male citizenry for four years only. Laws had to be passed by both houses in identical wording. Cabinets were answerable to both houses. The Senate could sit as a high court of justice in matters of sedition or high treason.
The logic behind so much power was that France was still unsure about the merits of a republican or even a democratic government. Earlier experiences had not been quite satisfying: both the First and the Second Republics had gone chaotic and been quickly replaced by authoritarian monarchies. The best way to ensure that the Third would last was to keep it as conservative as possible. Hence the Senate, which as an expression of the local powers and consequently of rural France, was deliberately designed to check or dilute many of the hasty policies or reforms put forward by the more urban-based Chambre des Députés.
It worked very well. Or maybe too well. The old Senate’s most famous contribution to the political and social stability of the country was probably its obstinate refusal — in 1922, 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1936 — to enfranchise women, or even to discuss such an issue.
The Third Republic was defeated by Hitler’s Third Reich in 1940, and collapsed. There was once again an authoritarian interlude, under the aegis of the conquerors: Marshall Pétain’s Vichy government. When France was liberated by the Anglo-Americans in 1944, a Fourth Republic was founded upon decidedly democratic principles. Women were finally enfranchised. The Senate was abolished, then reestablished in 1946 as the much diminished Council of the Republic. The lower house, renamed the National Assembly, reigned supreme. Twelve years later, however, the Fourth Republic gave way to the Fifth, Charles de Gaulle’s personal creation: a semi-presidential regime with strong neo-monarchist undertones. Both houses of parliament were weakened. At least the upper house was known again as the Senate.
There was a brief attempt, in 1969, to give it a new role. De Gaulle’s administration had been shattered the previous year by the so-called student revolution, which was in fact more a cultural upheaval than anything else. In a desperate but ill-conceived move, the aging president offered to open up the Senate to all kinds of grassroots movements and professional groups, including trade unions: a proposal that was out of sync with the late-sixties spirit and even reminiscent of the corporatist schemes of Mussolini, Salazar, and Franco. Upon its rejection in a referendum, de Gaulle was wise enough to resign. Ironically, it was Alain Poher, the chairman of the Senate, who succeeded him as an interim head of state until a new president was elected.
Ever since then, nobody has dared to question the Senate’s usefulness or functionality in its present form. However, some change was bound to take place some day, for sheer demographic reasons. Sixty percent of the French still lived in rural areas in 1945; only 22% were left in 2011. Much more relevant, the share of the peasants in the global active population dropped from 40% to 3.3%: most of the residents in contemporary rural areas are in fact engaging in urban professions and living in urbanized settlements. The Senate is thus less and less rooted in traditional France (inasmuch as there is still such a thing), and tends more and more to reflect the mainstream French society. This factor doesn’t necessarily work against the conservative parties, but it deprives them of many unconditionally loyal constituencies.
There was a conservative majority at Luxembourg Palace throughout the Fifth Republic until the very last partial election, which took place on September 25. It’s over now: by a thin margin — 177 seats out of 348 — the Left is in. What does it mean? Not much, one would argue. Neither in constitutional terms, since the Senate plays a marginal role, nor in political terms since these returns were just the mechanical translation of earlier local Left-wing successes.
On the other hand, the fall of the Senate may have considerable symbolic impact on the coming 2012 presidential campaign. It may reinforce a perception of Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent president, as a loser, and thus perversely accelerate his defeat next spring. But the opposite might be true as well. Grasp all, lose all: the Left now looks too strong. In addition to the Senate, it controls 60 départements (counties) out of 100, 24 regions out of 27, and 26 of the 38 largest municipalities. If it wins the presidential election as well as the subsequent National Assembly elections (as is usually the case), France will become a de facto one-party country. A dreadful prospect for most French people, including many Socialists or left-of-center sympathizers.
And an incentive to vote for Sarkozy and the Right after all.