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Asia-Pacific

Nuclear test compensation main issue as Hollande visits French Polynesia

media French President François Hollande Reuters/Stephane de Sakutin

French President François Hollande started a tour of the Pacific and Latin American on Sunday with a visit to the tiny islands of Wallis and Futuna. He was to go on to French Polynesia, where compensation for 193 nuclear tests from 1966-1996 is still a contentious question, followed by Peru, Argentina and Uruguay.

Hollande's visit to Wallis will be the first by a French president since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing touched down there in 1979.

Futuna, a volcanic island only about 10 kilometres with a population of just over 3,000, has been even more neglected - this will be the first presidential visit ever.

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Hollande was to visit the three traditional kingdoms and be welcomed by two kings, one of the thrones currently awaiting the designation of its occupant.

Traditional ceremonies have been organised - drinking the sacred drink kava, made from roots and branches of pepper plants, and KaïKaï - banquets of roast pigs laid out in front of the presidential palaces, the biggest being served to the guest of honour.

The islands' inhabitants are modest - they are desperately hoping that a French bank will open an ATM there and want dialysis equipment for their hospital.

With these visits, along with the trip to Polynesia, Hollande fulfils one of his 2012 campaign promises, to visit every all 11 of France's inhabited overseas territories.

A far more acrimonious debate awaits him in French Polynesia - the 30 years of French nuclear tests on the atolls of Mururoa and Fanguataufa that local people say have left a legacy of cancer and suffering.

Only 19 of 1,000 applications for compensation, authorised by a law passed in 2010, have received a favourable response and payments of the "nuclear debt" started in 1996 have shrunk in value to 84 million euros in 2016.

Local politicians are lobbying for the payments not to lose any more value and a "political response" to the compensation question is expected.

Hollande was to place a wreath on the grave of former MP Pouvanaa a Oopa, an indigneous rights campaigner who was accused and found guilty of setting fire to the Tahitian capital Papeete in 1959, a charge he denied until his death in 1977.

The territory's president, Edouard Fritch, launched his own political party, Tapura Huiraatira (People's Party), on the eve of Hollande's visit, following a breach with his former mentor and father-in-law, Gaston Flosse, who has been banned from standing for political positions following a corruption conviction.

The unemployment rate in French Polynesia is 23 per cent and one in five households live below the poverty line.

During the visit the president will have two Mondays, since he crosses the dateline between Wallis and Futuna and Tahiti twice.

On Tuesday he will arrive in Peru, where he will thank the government for its role at December's Cop21 climate change talks in Paris.

He will arrive in Argentina on Wednesday and Uruguay on Thursday.

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