French President Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist political party suffered its first electoral setback in Senate elections on Sunday in which the right-wing Republicans party strengthened its dominance in the upper chamber of parliament.
Results from the vote to renew 171 of 348 seats were expected to leave the French president’s Republic on the Move party (LREM) with a group of only 20-30 senators.
The outcome, which is not expected to significantly impact Macron’s ability to push through his economic reform agenda, came after months of falling approval ratings for the 39-year-old head of state.
But after a week in which he signed into law one of his signature economic reforms—an overhaul of rigid French labour laws—a new survey on Sunday brought more positive news.
A poll published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed 45 percent of respondents approved of his presidency, up from 40 percent last month.
French senators are elected by 76,000 local and national lawmakers, not the general public, which put LREM at a disadvantage because the party was only formed in April 2016 and is not implanted nationwide.
But Macron’s top team had once hoped to increase their presence in the upper house from the 29 seats they control presenting, comprising lawmakers who had switched over to the party.
“I can’t call it a success,” the head of LREM’s group in the Senate, Francois Patriat, admitted as he forecast that final results would show the party with 20-30 senators.
The Republicans expected to hold around 150 seats after the election, up from 142 presently. “It’s really good news,” commented senior figure Bruno Retailleau.
The election underscores some of the challenges for LREM which was started by Macron in April 2016 as a new pro-European, pro-business political movement to support his presidential bid.
It propelled him to victory as France’s youngest-ever president and it won a landslide in the far more important lower house of parliament in June.
Since then, with Macron’s approval ratings falling and the afterglow of his takeover of French politics fading, the party is grappling with the difficulty of establishing itself as a national force.
“The En Marche hurricane has not been at Category Five for a long time,” said Philippe Raynaud, a political science professor at Pantheon-Assas University, riffing on the storms that have been buffeting the Caribbean lately.
A string of policy moves have also irked the lawmakers who voted on Sunday, particularly 300 million euros (USD 360 million) in funding cuts for local and regional authorities.
Others are unhappy about Macron’s pledge to scrap property taxes for some 80 percent of French citizens— revenues which previously went into the budgets of local administrations.