Socialists in France wrested control over the Senate from the ruling conservative coalition led by President Sarkozy's UMP party in elections held by an electoral college on Sunday. This was a historic win as the Senate has always been controlled by the right or centre right in France since the current Fifth Republic was established in 1958.

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

“This is a breakthrough after 53 years of conservative rule and a disavowal of President Sarkozy. The wind is changing, history is being written. This is an omen for what will happen in 2012,” said Francois Holland, frontrunner in the French socialist primaries who is widely expected to be his party's candidate in the May 2012 presidential poll.

Mr. Sarkozy's party and its allies will now fight hard to keep the presidency of the Senate. The Senate president will be elected next Saturday and though the loss of the Upper House will not affect Mr Sarkozy's ability to govern, it is a blow to one of the most unpopular Presidents France has known just seven months ahead of a national presidential poll where he is almost certainly seeking a second term.

“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,” Bloomberg News quoted Professor Laurent Dubois as saying. Mr. Dubois who teaches at the prestigious Paris Political Studies Institute said: “The Senate should be Mr. Sarkozy's natural constituency and yet, even among rural conservative voters, he's contested.”

Call for unity

Prime Minister Francois Fillon and UMP Party President Francois Cope both conceded that the conservatives had done worse than expected but added that too much should not be read into the Socialists' victory. Mr Fillon gave a call for the unity of the right which has been spectacularly divided of late with several centrist ministers leaving the UMP and threatening to run as candidates in the presidential polls.

This could be a dangerous development for Mr. Sarkozy. For if the right wing vote gets too fragmented in the first round, extreme right leader Marine Le Pen who has considerably improved her showing in the opinion polls could emerge a victor to eliminate Mr. Sarkozy from the second round run off.

In fact, a core element of Mr. Sarkozy's party now referred to as the Popular Right has been adopting anti-immigrant rhetoric, a if to beat the extreme right at its own game. This can boomerang because it could alienate centrist voters.

A similar danger lurks for the Socialists however, for the Left's first round vote could be fragmented by candidates from the greens, and the extreme left parties. The Socialist candidate could then run the risk of elimination from the first round, a repeat of 2002 when Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was eliminated leading to a contest between Jacques Chirc and Jean Marie Le Pen of the extreme right National Front.

Scandals

Currently Mr Sarkozy and several of his top aides are mired in scandals with his former minister for immigration and the interior being questioned about a tip off to a colleague in jail.

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