OVERLOOKED WALLIS & FUTUNA PROUD TO BE FRENCH

Feature

By Sean Dorney, Wallis Island

WALLIS ISLAND, Wallis & Futuna (Radio Australia, Aug. 11, 2011) – Since the 1960s 14 Pacific island countries have won independence from their colonial masters - Great Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand - but of the colonisers, France, has been the odd one out. It is, however, going to allow New Caledonia to have a vote on its future in the next few years, while the current President of French Polynesia, Oscar Temaru, wants the Pacific Islands Forum to support his desire for independence. But there is a third French possession in the Pacific that apparently wants to be forever French.

Medieval-looking banners fly in one of the few Kingdoms left in the French Republic.

It's the Kingdom of Wallis - part of the French overseas territory of Wallis and Futuna which lies in the central Pacific north of Fiji and west of Samoa.

The first European to find the island was an Englishman, Captain Wallis, but local Paulo Falakiko Vilisoni says the French were close behind.

"The islanders decided to ask France for their help and protection," he said.

"So it became a protectorate of the colony of New Caledonia. In 1959 they decided to have a ballot to decide whether Wallis and Futuna would continue to be a colony, part of the colony of New Caledonia or become an Overseas Territory of France.

Wallis and Futuna is the third of the French Pacific possessions, and less well known than New Caledonia or French Polynesia.

But while many countries in the Pacific celebrate their anniversaries of independence, on Wallis and Futuna they're celebrating 50 years of having been an overseas territory of France.

Wallis and Futuna has a population of only 15,000 - a decent percentage of whom turned out for the ceremony emphasising close ties with the Republic.

The French Minister for Overseas Territories, Marie-Luce Penchard, was the main guest of honour, while Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, was also on hand.

"It was interesting from an outsider’s point of view to observe the comments she made about unity here in Wallis and Futuna," he said. "Clearly there is a sense amongst the French that the territories really matter - that they are a part of France and that we might be on the other side of the planet to Paris but as we stand here today we're on French soil and there's a lot that that implies in terms of rights of citizenship. But I thought it was also interesting to observe the place that Wallisian veterans had within this ceremony. Wallisians have served in the French military over many decades and recently and they were given all the reverence and honour of veterans we would expect to see in our own society."

After the flag raising, the ceremonial ground was transformed into a customary feasting site - with warrior guards and that signature sign of wealth in the Pacific - pigs. And more pigs. The slaughtered and dressed pigs just kept coming.

The invited guests were festooned with decorations and given ceremonial skirts to wear - all dressed up for an audience with the King of Wallis in a highly ritualised kava ceremony that lasted several hours.

"The French have allowed them to keep a lot of their customs and in the way that they would like to keep them. For instance, there's only three important things for Wallis and Futunians," says Paulo Falakiko Vilisoni.

"That is the church, their King and their country ways."

Richard Marles says it's clear Wallis and Futuna sees itself as part of France.

"I think they are thrilled with the idea that France is here," he said.

"There's obviously a lot of services that they get as a part of that, but as we listened to the Marseillaise being sung, it was hard to imagine it being sung with more gusto in the heart of Paris than it was being sung here in Wallis."

The French Government spent about $US140 million supporting Wallis and Futuna last year - about $10,000 per head of population.

"It's a different philosophy," Richard Marles says.

"I mean if you look at the amount of money they put into New Caledonia, into Wallis as well as into French Polynesia - it's not money that they consider to be aid.

"It's money that they consider to be a consequence of French citizens living here and therefore being able to enjoy all the rights that a French citizen would if they were living in Normandy or Paris.

More Wallisians have migrated to New Caledonia than live at home on Wallis Island.

But while that territory is moving closer to independence, in Wallis and Futuna, even the youngest remain proud to be French.

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