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POLITICS

French left claims historic Senate win

France's left-wing opposition won an historic victory in senatorial elections on Sunday, in a blow to centre-right leader President Nicolas Sarkozy seven months before he is to seek re-election.

The Socialist Party said that, with its Communist and Green allies, it had won enough seats to give the left control of the upper house for the first time in French history, a stepping stone towards a presidential win.

“Nicolas Sarkozy will go down in history as the president that lost the right its majority in the Senate,” declared Francois Hollande, favourite to win the Socialist Party’s nomination to run against Sarkozy next year.

“In a way it’s like a premonition of what will happen in 2012,” he said.

Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, admitted the right had suffered from its divisions and that the left had made a “strong breakthrough”.

“The moment of truth will come next spring. The battle begins tonight,” Fillon said in a statement, calling on the right to unite behind Sarkozy’s government in time to turn the tide before the late April vote.

Right-wing parties have controlled the Senate since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, and Sunday’s flip to the left could break the already weak momentum of Sarkozy’s unannounced re-election drive.

Before the vote, outgoing speaker Gerard Larcher had admitted to AFP that if he was defeated by the left it would be a political “earthquake” and “the preparations for the presidential election would be singularly changed.”  

The historic Senate victory also opens the door to a possible Socialist hat-trick, given that opinion polls suggest the left will win next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

“For the first time, the National Assembly, the Senate and the president could be from the left, which would give them serious weight if they decided to modify the constitution,” said political scientist Bruno Jeanbert.

The Senate is not chosen by universal suffrage but by a “super-electorate” of elected officials — around 72,000 mayors, local and regional councillors, voting for figures on the basis of regional lists.

Around half the seats in the 348-strong house were up for grabs in the poll, and the left needed to add only 22 more seats to win a majority.

With many centrists, independents and non-party figures in the upper house, it might be a few days before the exact division of forces becomes clear.

The outgoing speaker, UMP stalwart Gerard Larcher, said before the vote that he was confident of maintaining at least a six- to 12-seat margin to win re-election to his post on October 1st when the new chamber meets.

But Bel now expects to gather enough votes to unseat him.

The right did not initially admit defeat, with results still coming in, but the mood in Sarkozy’s camp was decidedly more sombre.

Budget Minister Valerie Pecresse said she regretted the result and said she was “sad” for Larcher and his team.

Claude Goasguen, a UMP lawmaker from Paris, admitted his party had had a bad day in the capital. “We have to take on board the consequences quickly,” he said, calling for a root-and-branch renewal of the Paris party.

And the mood in the country appeared to have already had direct political consequences, with Pecresse confirming the threshold for top rate income tax might be brought lower.

The Senate vote has no direct bearing on next April’s presidential poll, which will be open to all French voters and conducted over two rounds, the second a head-to-head run-off between the best placed candidates.

But defeat is an ill omen for Sarkozy, whose party is already nervous about his low poll ratings and the ongoing economic and financial crisis.

Sarkozy has attempted to play on his foreign policy credentials as the current leader of the G8 and G20 great power blocs and the main foreign champion of the Libyan revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi.

But whatever glory he may have picked up on the international stage has been drowned out at home by the implication of his closest allies in a series of high-level corruption and party-funding scandals.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains high and France’s financial sector has found itself under attack on the markets, where traders fear its banks are overexposed to risky Greek and Italian debts.

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DISCOVER FRANCE

Inside Brégançon: The French presidential Riviera holiday home

If you're expecting to see French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris over the summer you're likely to be disappointed - he and his wife Brigitte are at Brégançon, the official Riviera 'holiday home' of the presidents of France.

Inside Brégançon: The French presidential Riviera holiday home

The Fort of Brégançon, which stands on a rock 30 metres above the sea, has been offering privacy and sunshine to French presidents for decades, although its history goes back much further than that.

The fort is perched on a tiny island – just 4.5km long – connected to the French mainland by a causeway and has been a strategic site since the 6th century, acting as a seigneurial residence, a Crown estate property and a military site equipped with artillery including 23 cannons under Napoleon Bonaparte.

It was Charles de Gaulle who gave it the status of official presidential residence in 1968 and it’s usually used for presidential holidays – similar to Camp David in the USA and Chequers in the UK.

It has since been transformed into a pleasant residence while maintaining what remained of the ancient fortress, giving presidents the opportunity to take advantage of the sunshine of the Riviera.

French presidents have their main residence and offices in the Elysée Palace, the beautiful 18th century residence in the heart of Paris. In addition to Brégançon, presidents also have the use of La Lanterne, a former hunting lodge in the grounds of Versailles, and although they can’t stay in the sumptuous Palace of Versailles they do sometimes hold events and meeting with foreign dignitaries there.

It’s Brégançon’s offshore location that was the key for De Gaulle, who considered it the only place in the south of France secure enough to receive foreign heads of state, particularly from Mediterranean countries in the geopolitical context of decolonisation. 

While it remains secure, it is these days within long-lens range for photographers, as several presidents have discovered. 

But through the years of the Fifth Republic, French presidents have had quite varying attitudes to this undoubted perk of the job.

De Gaulle’s successor Georges Pompidou seemed to love it and spent his weekends in the Fort both in summers and winters. He opened its doors to the media, letting himself be photographed with his spouse in more relaxed clothing and playing pétanque with his bodyguards.

Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude in August 1969 pose in the gardens during their summer holiday. Photo by AFP

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who regularly stayed there with his family, brought the national spotlight on the Fort by letting paparazzi venture around the residence, snapping pictures of him in swimsuit and tennis shoes, but also installing CCTV inside the residence.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing poses for photos with his wife Anne-Aymone in 1979. Photo by AFP

When socialist François Mitterrand won the election, he declared: “the Republic doesn’t need a secondary residence.”

He limited his visits to work meeting – the SNCF strikers in 1987 and two heads of state the Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl – although he took no steps to sell off Brégancon. 

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was hosted by François Mitterand in August 1985. Photo by PIERRE CIOT / AFP

His successor Jacques Chirac particularly appreciated the fort because of its location in the Var département where he lived as a child.

With his spouse Bernadette, they regularly attend mass at the local church and greeted residents and tourists. In 2004, the President received Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to appease tensions. The Brégançon presidential desk was photographed for the first time.

Jacques Chirac and Brigitte leaving the local church in May 1999 Photo by VANINA LUCCHESI / AFP

During his presidency Nicolas Sarkozy received foreign politicians including Condoleezza Rice, but also took some time to exercise. The pictures of him jogging around the Fort were described as creating a new style of presidential communication. Later, he was photographed on the beach with first lady Carla Bruni during her pregnancy.

Nicolas Sarkozy jogging, followed by his bodyguards on bikes. Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP

François Hollande, who branded himself as a “normal president” felt no particular attachment to the Fort and opened the site to the public for visits, although he did host some work meetings there.

A rather formal looking Francois Hollande meets with his Prime Minister Manuel Valls at Brégançon. Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS / POOL / AFP

Since being elected in 2017 Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron seem to have enjoyed the Fort, retreating there during the summers and being photographed on the beach or having fun on jet-skis – they also installed a swimming pool which cost €34,000.

Brigitte Macron owns a property in the northern French seaside resort of Le Touquet, which the couple use for family time. But Emmanuel Macron has also used the Fort for work, hosting British Prime Minister Theresa May in August 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2019, on the eve of the G7 in Biarritz, and Chancellor Angela Merkel in summer 2020. 

Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Bregancon in August 2020. Photo by Christophe SIMON / POOL / AFP

This year he declared that he would be having a “pause studieuse” at Brégançon and use the summer to think about how to tackle some of France’s most pressings issues.

With a cost of living crisis, war in Europe and political turmoil at home, let’s hope that his beach reading bears fruit.

By Julie Edde

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