By Nic Maclellan

In a major electoral upset, Kanak independence politician Robert Xowie has won one of New Caledonia’s two seats in the French Senate in Paris.

His second-round electoral victory over Loyalist leader Sonia Backès came on 24 September, the 170th anniversary of France’s annexation of its Pacific dependency.

Xowie is the Mayor of Lifou and a former provincial president in the outlying Loyalty Islands. He will take his seat in Paris alongside Georges Naturel, the Mayor of Dumbea and a dissident member of Rassemblement-Les Républicains, who ran against the endorsed candidate of the conservative anti-independence party.

The two new senators will replace the incumbents Pierre Frogier, the Senator from Rassemblement-Les Républicains first elected in 2011, and Gérard Poadja of the Calédonie ensemble party, who won his seat at the last poll in 2017.

Unlike the popular vote for deputies in the French National Assembly, Senators are elected by 578 New Caledonian MPs, provincial assembly members and local government delegates.

The unexpected victory of two new Senators is a major success for the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), with the independence movement gaining a seat in the French Senate for the first time, while dealing a stinging blow to the Loyalist bloc.

In the first round of voting on Sunday, Naturel won his seat with a majority of 351 votes against Robert Xowie (259), Sonia Backès (225), Pierre Frogier (180), Gérard Poadja (48), Macate Wenehoua (6) and Manuel Millar (2).

In the second-round run-off, incumbents Frogier and Poadja and Manuel Millar withdrew their candidacies. Xowie faced off against Loyalist leader Sonia Backès, who already serves as President of New Caledonia’s Southern Province and as a minister for citizenship in the Borne government in Paris.

Given the FLNKS could only count on about 250 of the 578 possible voters, Xowie’s second-round score of 307 suggests that many anti-independence politicians and mayors backed him over Backès, who only won 246 votes in the run-off (the third candidate Wenehoua gained just 2 votes). Local media had suggested Backès would use her profile to win the seat, then hand it to her alternate Gil Brial while keeping her ministerial post – an arrogance that raises questions about her political judgement.

The election result is a major blow to Backès, who stood as a representative of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party and was publicly endorsed by France’s Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin. His support for Backès angered the FLNKS, who condemned the minister’s statement as a breach of the supposed impartiality that the French State often proclaims. This outcome reflects poorly on the Overseas Minister, who is due to travel again to Noumea in late October, hoping to advance negotiations over a new draft political statute for New Caledonia.

As a member of the independence party Union Calédonienne, Xowie will now be supported by his alternate Valentine Eurisouke of the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika). He takes up the Senate post alongside Georges Naturel at a crucial time in Paris, as President Macron plans revisions of the French Constitution in early 2024, to change the electoral rolls in New Caledonia before scheduled Congressional and Assembly elections next May.

As supporters and opponents of independence debate new structures to replace New Caledonia’s 1998 Noumea Accord, Xowie stressed the importance of his new post in Paris: “It is important that when we are going to talk about constitutional revision, the debate takes place involving us. We have a chance to be able to present the views of the FLNKS directly in the plenary sessions.”