Political exiles return to Senate

Two of the best-known figures in French politics made a stylish return to public life yesterday, winning easy victories in elections to the Senate, the upper house of the French parliament. Charles Pasqua, the bulldog interior minister of the former Balladur government, and Michel Rocard, the former Socialist prime minister and grey eminence of the Socialist Party, were among almost 700 candidates contesting 117 seats.

Both Mr Pasqua and Mr Rocard are returning from spells in the political wilderness and both intend to use their Senate seats to take an active part in politics. Mr Pasqua has been out of politics since April, when his ally, Edouard Balladur, was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election. Mr Rocard has been in political limbo since he fell out with former President Mitterrand in 1991; doctrinal differences and a messy divorce put him out of the running to be the Socialists' presidential candidate.

The position of senator is one of the most comfortable and secure in France: they are elected for nine years, with the possibility of re-election, enjoy a generous salary, and work in the sumptuous surroundings of the Luxembourg Palace for no more than 80 days a year.

This year's contest was unusually keen, perhaps because of the feverish state of French politics following the election of Jacques Chirac, perhaps because, in reducing the Senate's average age and moving it slightly to the left, the elections could make the Senate a more important player. During the selection process, personal and political rivalries were rife and an unexpected number of "dissident" lists were submitted in addition to the main party lists.

One was compiled by a distinguished outgoing Socialist senator, Francoise Seligman, removed from the Socialists' suburban Paris list to accommodate Robert Badinter, former head of the Constitutional Council. Mrs Seligman formed an all-female list in protest and when nominations closed it emerged that nationally, there were four all-female lists. Senate elections are held once every three years, with one-third of the 321 seats contested each time. Senators are elected by the department and the voting is indirect, by electoral colleges, comprising parliamentary deputies, local councillors and their nominees.

There was only one hitch in yesterday's arrangements: the Communist Party called for a re-run in the Somme department in northern France after the box containing the ballot papers for their candidates vanished from the town hall in Amiens.

t Jacques Chirac's popularity fell to 33 per cent in September, a low reached by Mr Mitterrand only after two years in office, according to a poll by IFOP.

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