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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, Feb. 22) - French Minister For Overseas François Baroin and political and chiefly representatives from the Pacific territory of Wallis and Futuna, France's farthest-flung dependency, have on Wednesday inked a "development contract" which effectively formalises close to US$50 million in French assistance for the 2007-2011 period.

The new package is said to be larger than previous ones, and places a focus on catching up on infrastructural projects that had been long overdue, especially on Futuna island.

These include the upgrading of Futuna's Vele airport and airstrip (about US$8.5 million) and the construction of a multi-purpose sports hall on Wallis.

[PIR editor’s note: The Polynesian islands of Wallis and Futuna, west of Samoa, since 1959 have been a French overseas territory. They have a total population of about 16,000 and a land area slightly larger than Washington, D.C.]

Education and health remains another priority, with a US$8.5 million package to restructure the whole health and hospital system.

A US$10 million package goes to social and community-targeted actions, including vocational training.

In France's two other Pacific dependencies, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, the yearly French direct assistance package is estimated to average two billion US dollars respectively.

The signing ceremony at the French ministry for overseas territories in Paris took place this week in presence of the French resident envoy in Wallis and Futuna, Prefect and Administrator Superior Richard Didier, the territory's representative in the French National Assembly, Victor Brial, as well as representatives from Wallis and Futuna's three Kings.

Kilisitofo Savea, the "Vakalasi" (traditional advisor and minister for the King of Alo, on Futuna) told French broadcaster RFO he was particularly pleased to see that significant development packages had been granted to his island, especially for the Vele airstrip.

This, he said, would help increase the island's international capacity and local tourism development.

The two islands of Wallis and Futuna are also home to three Kingdoms: one on Wallis and two on Futuna.

87-year-old King of Wallis, Tomasi Kulimoetoke, also known as the "Lavelua", has been unwell for several months and could not travel to Paris due to poor health.

Kulimoetoke was crowned in 1959.

Two years after his coronation, in 1961, Kulimoetoke signed a pact with France that granted both Wallis and Futuna islands the official status of "French Overseas Territory".

The other two Kings are from Futuna island: they are the Tuisigave, for the Kingdom of Sigave and the Tuigaifo, for the kingdom of Alo.

Wallis and Futuna islands, located Northeast of Fiji, are populated by around fifteen thousand inhabitants.

Another twenty thousand-strong community from those islands is also residing in New Caledonia (populated by around 230,000).

Since 2005, relations between the islands of Wallis and Futuna have been tense.

In one of the latest episode in attempts to reconcile the two islands, late January, a delegation of chiefs from Wallis and representatives from the Lavelua travelled to Futuna to make traditional representations

This was the first visit from Wallis chiefs to Futuna since grave civil unrest rocked the French Pacific territory, in the last quarter of 2005.

Since then, Futuna islanders and chiefs have on several occasions expressed themselves in critical manner to Wallis, blaming the sister island for causing trouble and therefore hindering its own development.

Last year, Futuna officials went as far as travelling to Paris separately to meet French President Jacques Chirac, asking for fresh, special provisions in their status that would make them less dependent on Wallis.

During the chiefly meeting in January, the Wallisian delegation produced a draft for a memorandum of understanding regarding each island's standing vis-à-vis France.

The Futunian chiefs were not impressed and even felt rather offended by what they perceived as an ultimatum.

And the Futuna chiefly have so far been non-committal and refused to provide an immediate reply to Wallis's requests.

The chiefly talks were believed to have ended on a sour note.

In September 2005, Wallis Island was the scene of grave confrontations between rivalling factions within the royal family.

A faction of the royal family, calling itself "pro-reform", demanded changes towards a more democratic form of society.

The tension, which appeared to be an early symptom of a succession tussle, had arisen from criminal convictions imposed to the King of Wallis's grandson, who had later taken refuge at his grandfather's Palace to evade the French justice and a jail sentence.

After a blockade organised by armed supporters of the King initially prevented French troops to land on Wallis airport and another self-proclaimed "pro-reform" faction from within the Wallis royal family had sided with the French government in an apparent bid to seize power, the situation reverted to a status quo with France reaffirming its support to the ailing King.

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