Island's rebel king stakes his independence

The dispute erupted after King Tomasi Kulimoetoke of Wallis, head of one of three royal families in Wallis and Futuna, objected to an 18-month jail sentence for manslaughter imposed in February by the local court on his grandson, Tomasi Tuugahala, after a road accident on New Year's Eve.

The king invited his grandson to hide from police in the royal palace. The prince spent four months there until he gave himself up on 7 June and was flown to the nearest jail, in New Caledonia.

One man was seriously injured when riots erupted the following week between supporters of the traditionalist King Tomasi and a group that wants him replaced by a grand chief more amenable to French ways. The previous month, the king's opponents staged ostentatious traditional ceremonies to send the message that they wanted him to go.

The 16,000 inhabitants of Wallis, Futuna, Alofi and 20 islets in the archipelago are are in effect ruled by Prefect Xavier de Fürst, who is appointed by the French President. Mr De Fürst heads the government, which consists of a cabinet of the archipelago's three kings and three members appointed by him.

Relations between Mr De Fürst and the monarch have remained tense since the middle of May when King Tomasi first called for the removal of the French prefect and the local judge, who is appointed by Paris. As a consequence, Mr De Fürst froze the king's financial allowance and the salaries of his ministers.

King Tomasi has now moved to defuse the row by reaffirming his allegiance to Paris.But the 86-year-old monarch added: "Our proclamation of loyalty to the state [of France] in no way implies our feudal subservience nor our intention to abandon customary law."

In another gesture likely to infuriate the French, the king also repeated his call for the removal of the governor. The governor did not respond to the pledge of allegiance but government sources in Paris reacted with caution, suggesting the king was buying time for domestic reasons.

King Tomasi, whose formal title is The Lavelua, has ruled the three districts of Wallis since 1959 when the archipelago voted to remain a French territory. Wallis and Futuna, where most people are subsistence farmers who survive thanks to European Union grants and money sent back by migrant workers, became a French protectorate in 1842.

There is no suggestion that the people of Wallis and Futuna wish to break with France. In common with almost all French overseas territories and départements, the archipelago supported the European constitution in the referendum on 29 May. The vote in Wallis and Futuna was especially high - 89.6 per cent in favour.

Mr De Fürst 's deputy, Jean-Marie Oustry, said: "On one hand there are the modernists, who are the majority and who wish to bring Wallis and Futuna up to date ... The king's entourage is extremely traditionalist. For us, it is a very complicated situation... but it has to be down to the Wallisians to decide."