French conservatives capture control of Senate

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PARIS (AP) — Conservatives won French Senate elections Sunday to take control of parliament's upper house, handing President Francois Hollande's Socialists a new setback.

The far-right National Front party also gained its first two Senate seats in the balloting.

The Senate press office said a final count will await tallies from all of France's overseas holdings — not likely until Monday, but it was already clear that the conservatives were back in control of the 348-seat chamber.

A conservative win was expected: Senators are chosen by nearly 88,000 electors nationwide, including local officials who took office in a conservative victory in municipal elections six months ago.

Socialists still control the National Assembly, which has final say in drafting laws. But control of the Senate victory gives conservatives a chance to delay legislative bills supported by Hollande — possibly thwarting his reform agenda that has drawn plaudits for cost-cutting among some European partners like Germany, but has failed to create jobs for the French.

The showing confirms pockets of strong popularity for the National Front and a political turnaround for France's recently embattled mainstream right, which was riddled with internal squabbling months ago and is now riding high with the return of former President Nicolas Sarkozy to the politic scene.

Sarkozy, who drifted into the political wilderness after losing to Hollande in 2012, is seeking the leadership of the conservative UMP party. It was on track to sweep up a third strong election showing in France this year, after the municipal vote and European parliament elections in May. France's next presidential election is in 2017.

The right has benefited from widespread frustration with Hollande's persistent, but failed, efforts to revive a moribund economy and bring down entrenched double-digit unemployment rates.

Half of the Senate is elected every three years. Senators hold six-year terms. Under the French constitution, the chamber's president — selected by its majority — is first in line to become France's president if the head of state dies or resigns. A battle for that post is expected this week.

Hollande's political support in power has dwindled along with his popularity ratings, now at the lowest level of any postwar president in France, according to polls. Only a few years ago, the Socialists and their allies captured their first-ever, if narrow, majority in the Senate, and controlled all but two of the country's 22 regional administrations.

The Senate traditionally represents rural France, though reforms underway aim to give cities and towns bigger representation. More than three-fourths of senators are over 60 years old. Women make up less than a quarter of the body.

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