The Senate elections

The Senate is essentially the bearer of ideas from the rural world, as there is a divide between the rural French which is of course more to the right than the urban French who are living through big changes in society. Guy Fischer, vice president of the Senate.

Is it democracy when we have a constitution which allows one party to win all the time? The question deserves to be raised, especially when we note that in our history, France has never seen anything other than the right in power in the Senate, the upper house in the Constitution.

We have had the majority of people on the left: Francoise Mitterrand was elected President two times running; the socialists have had large majorities in the house of deputies, the lower house of the constitution. Why then have they never taken power in the Senate then? In order to clear up this question, we went to meet Paul Bacot, the director of the centre for political studies in Lyon.

The elections for the Senate are indirect; he started with an analysis of the electorate responsible for the selection of the Senators.

Briefly, either it is people who have already been elected deputies, regional councillors, general councillors, mayors etc or it is people who have been selected specially for this by those elected. In the medium towns, in the medium communes [1], all the councillors are Big Electors for the senate elections. In the small communes, in the villages, the municipal council selects from its members some municipal councillors to be Big Electors, and in the big towns all the municipal councillors are electors and appoint even more Big Electors, you see.

Until now, all seems quite democratic, but…

But, when the calculations are done like that, the reality is that the small communes are very much over represented. The number of Big Electors per commune is not at all proportional to the population. So that makes for a house which is rather rural in effect, that does not necessarily mean that it is to the right because come rural regions [2] can be to the left, but it is true in our time in general that carries the Senate off to the right meaning that have never known a majority on the left in the Senate.

Such a situation is justified by the importance of balanced geographical representation. But things are more complex than that:

At the end of September, there will be elections for a third of the seats in the Senate. Guy Fischer is hoping to renew his period in office for the region [department] of Rhone [3].

In the most populated departments, the most urbanised, it is proportional representation, well that means that the minority parties can have a senator or two in these departments. On the other hand in the least populated departments, so the most rural, it is majority voting. That means that the biggest party can have all of the seats available in fact, that is three or two in fact. And so here again we meet again the fact that the most rural departments are generally mostly to the right and so we have a building up from two phenomena, three phenomena even: the rural communes are more represented than the urban departments and it is these rural departments disposed rather to the right that we have an electoral form which eliminates the opposition. So all that combined effectively leaves room for reforms which we can easily see could be made to give the Senate a form more in keeping with the dominant idea of democracy, let’s say.

An electoral campaign for the Senate has several parts. There is all the work that we do during the period in office, nine years. Writing a log, responding to the mayors, participating each year in the general assemblies of the mayors of Rhone or the rural mayors, so receiving the mayors, going to see them, so there are many ways of campaigning, but above all, the thing which is important is being able to perpetuate during the time in office these relationships with the mayors, the municipal councillors, the deputy mayors. And then there is the big moment, on the 15th August, the official electoral campaign is open, so six weeks of campaigning and then of course you go to see the mayors, I have written to all of the mayors, I have meetings in all the little villages just as in the urban area. But it is very interesting because I meet especially the members of the municipal councils and then by going to see quite different communes, the smallest Saint Christophe La Montagne, or in an urban area like Venissieux or in Beaujolais as in Villiers Morgon, or in the south in Givors, well, then we meet mayors who have quite different communes, but common concerns.

M Fischer is a representative of the Communist Party and is a general councillor for Les Minguettes, a working class part of Venissieux. The search for the voices in the rural community is therefore a journey of discovery but he finds an ear:

For example, the disappearance of public services. In the post office, they have announced the closure, mainly in the rural community, of 6000 post offices. You see that’s a subject which the Senator… and for me well ahead of others, well, I had supported the postal presence in rural areas and that is one of the important points. The big laws on the land, on decentralisation, on fiscal reform, for example the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac announced the abolition of professional tax. The professional tax is the principal resource for many communes, else the most important, well then in the different contacts from a little town of 200 people to a town of 56,000 or to a town of more than 500,000 the concerns are the same.

Identical concerns, but two different worlds, the country and the town:

In places like… in towns like ours in Venissieux, we meet all the miseries of the world. There is segregation which is growing more and more, and there is an explosion in insecurity, many people unemployed, many people who live on the social minimum, and there is the development of a parallel economy with drugs notably.

Senator Fischer is a man with his feet on the ground, that’s evident. But at the end of the day, does he get real results?

Yes, there are sometimes victories, on… personally I think of the laws concerning the handicapped, there on the first reading, the bill was passed to the Senate and I took part… I spend a lot of time on the problems of the handicapped, I am on the commission of social affairs, I took part in a commission of investigation on the mistreatment of the handicapped in institutions; fine, I have worked a lot of that. So the Communist Senators proposed changes and some of them were upheld. So sometimes, on human rights; well on economic matters it is more difficult; but on the big social problems, for example, especially those which affect asylum seekers… Personally I am at the same time a general councillor for a large working class area of the city: Les Minguettes, so I have to hear that voice. I say that I am the Senator for the ‘speechless’, that is the disadvantaged, those who live on the social minimum. And so there are sometimes little victories, but it is very difficult.

Professor Bacot confirms that the work of the Senate can have an impact.

There is real power; there is real power in comparison to the other European regimes. Knowing both houses, I would be tempted to conclude that we are somewhat in the middle here. It is essentially a power to slow down the legislative process but for some matters there is the power to block. And notably, practically we cannot reform the Senate without the agreement of the Senate. That obviously poses an enormous problem.

What if we quite simply omitted the second house?

If we take the 45 independent states of all types and of all sizes in the continent of Europe, a majority live in what we call a single-house system, that is one single house. That said, we must recognise that this presentation of things is a bit misleading because of course among these single house countries there are all the little countries, indeed all the little countries where we don’t see how they could pay for the luxury of two houses. The second house is essential in some way in the countries which operate in a federal model, those which are federations like Germany, Austria for example… because that’s the guarantee for each party, for each of the federated states to use its weight, to be represented equally, that’s very important in the federal countries… the federated states are represented equally in the second house whatever their population. Fine, that is the American model too. So there it is, for the federal systems the choices are quite clear. For the non federal systems, well there are systems which are not federal but nevertheless are very close to the federation, that is that case more and more for Italy for example, and it is true that we can consider also that… or we could consider that a further step in the decentralisation in France might also go in this direction.

Whilst for M Fischer, his reelection seems sure: he has acquired the reputation of a Senator who works for his period in office and he is well placed on the [electoral] lists. Vice President already at the age of 60, why not President one of these days? Alas for him, his political colours are an obstacle:

Impossible! Impossible! No, no it’s impossible; already there is a strong possibility that the communist part will lose the vice presidency…

[1] A commune is an elected body which represents a collection of village communities. As there are some 70,000 villages with elected representatives in France, there has to be a hierarchy of bodies, ie village > commune > department > region > national.

[2] In 1982, France introduced a system of 22 regional authorities each covering about 4 departments which still exist.

[3] The Department of Rhone includes Lyon.

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