Head of French Senate to retire

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The Independent Online
FRANCE held elections for 103 of the 321 seats in the Senate yesterday, a poll in which only other elected officials participated.

Municipal, departmental and regional councillors and deputies to the lower National Assembly of 32 departments chose from 561 candidates to the upper house. Given that the political affiliations of the voters were already known, there were few surprises, although the consequences will be felt through the week.

Two government ministers were elected to the Senate. The departure of Michel Charasse, the Budget Minister, and of Jean-Marie Rausch, the Trade and Crafts Minister, would force a minor government reshuffle, the Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy, said.

More importantly, Alain Poher, the president of the Senate, has said that he will not seek re-election, leaving open a post which is critical under the constitution.

It is the Senate president who takes over from the state president if he resigns, dies or is incapacitated. Mr Poher, first elected to the post in 1968, has twice briefly held the reins of state: when Charles de Gaulle resigned in 1969 after his referendum involving Senate reform was rejected; and in 1974, when Georges Pompidou died.

Given that speculation has been rife about the future of President Francois Mitterrand for months and particularly intense over the past week, the election to the Senate presidency on Friday will be followed closely.

President Mitterrand, 76 next month, is convalescing on the Breton island of Belle-Ile after undergoing prostate surgery two weeks ago. Doctors said they had found cancer in an early stage and that treatment would not affect his ability to function.

However, with the victory on 20 September of the 'yes' vote in the referendum on the Maastricht treaty, friends and foes of the president argue that there is little reason for him to serve out his full mandate until May 1995 and that it would be appropriate to step down before National Assembly elections in March.

The candidates for the Senate presidency are not yet declared but Charles Pasqua, one of the Gaullist leaders of the campaign against Maastricht, has long been said to want the post. A coalition of the centre and left can be expected to try to block the populist former interior minister, who is remembered for setting up an unofficial security service around de Gaulle, known as the SAC, during the Algerian war.