French territory in Pacific faces uncertain future

In a tiny French territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, three kings and the Catholic Church have held their grip on power hundreds of years after France became a secular republic.

But although life has remained unchanged in Wallis and Futuna for centuries, its young people are packing their bags and leaving the islands` tropical shores forever, driven away by a lack of opportunities and little prospect of reform.

As the economy stagnates, locals say the islands are slowly dying.

Isolated and without natural resources, two inhabited land masses and a number of islets make up the Polynesian archipelago, which is roughly the size of 20 soccer pitches and home to just 12,197 people.

The islands represent one of France`s dozen or so overseas territories, and while its citizens vote in French elections they retain a high degree of autonomy when it comes to local laws, overseen by the three monarchs -- the Kings of Uvea, Sigave and Alo. 

Traditional ceremonies put on for the royal families are held to this day, one of which involves laying out a dozen stuffed pigs on their backs in a public space, trotters akimbo.

In the last 10 years the population has declined by a fifth, with emigration exacerbated by a falling birth rate. There are now double the number of expatriate islanders living in New Caledonia, its nearest sister territory, than on Wallis and Futuna. 

"In five years, this place is dead," a retailer originally from metropolitan France told AFP. "Families are leaving every month. We create 15 jobs a year on Wallis, so young people are condemned to exile," he added.With a high rate of unemployment, 60 percent of those who have jobs on the archipelago work in the public sector and recently held a strike over conditions, waving banners and blockading the entrance to the local assembly, which has 20 representatives.

The trio of monarchs are also beneficiaries of the French state, paid a generous monthly salary to perpetuate Polynesian customs that have merged with strong Catholic beliefs since the arrival of Christianity in the mid-19th century -- but discontentment is growing.

Kapeliele Faupala, King of Uvea (Wallis), was removed from the throne by village elders in September. His rule over the larger and more populated Wallis island led to resentment over his allegedly autocratic style and seeming disinterest in the job.

In this feudal society, the selection of a sovereign is long, complex and shrouded in secrecy. 

Meanwhile the islands` tax regime places levies on imports in a land where survival is otherwise reliant on subsistence farming, but there is no form of direct taxation, aggravating inequality.

Heavily reliant on subsidies from Paris, the economy is limited to agriculture, fishing and remittances from expatriate workers in New Caledonia, 2,100 km away. Fiji and Samoa are its nearest neighbours.

Wallis is relatively flat and surrounded by turquoise lagoon waters, and is home to the islands` handful of shops, and its police station, hospital and post office.

Futuna is mountainous and even more remote, with hamlets almost drowned in vegetation.

The population swelters all year round in extreme humidity and 30C (86F) temperatures, but despite the scarcity of employment the islands are covered with churches and chapels of all sizes -- all perfectly maintained.The Church is responsible for islanders` primary-level education, in contrast to metropolitan France where state education is separated from religious institutions by law.

At a primary school in the village of Malaefoou, teacher Nadia Kavakava described how the student body was shrinking every year, while a class of children sat barefoot at wooden desks, smiling shyly.

"Every year, we cut back more classes," she said. "The kids have to leave because there isn`t much of a future here. 

"There are more and more abandoned houses. Young people sometimes come back after their studies in France or in Noumea (New Caledonia) but it`s down to a trickle," she added.

France injects around 120 million euros ($150 million) into Wallis and Futuna every year, while efforts by the European Union to kickstart the economy have proved fruitless despite subsidies running to 10-15 million euros ($13-19 million) every five years.

The construction of a gigantic church on Wallis drew criticism from villagers, who told AFP in October costs ran to millions of dollars partly drawn from private donations, leaving some in debt as a result.

The islands` "prefet", a senior administrator sent from Paris, believes the royal families` firm grip on the territory is partly to blame for the islands` dysfunctional economy. With no land registry, there are often conflicting claims to property.

"The organisation in place does not attract investors because they cannot acquire property. They should liberate the land," Michel Auboin told AFP.

The islands` teenagers were no more optimistic about their future.

"We are all on Facebook for hours, making friends or speaking with family in France or Australia. Wallis is a sad place for young people... there`s no job prospects," said Loviana, who is in her final year of high school.

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