French Overseas Departments

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Podcast Transcript

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, several European countries had colonies all around the world. 

Today, all of the empires have broken up, but some countries still have tiny remnants that can be found overseas.

One of those countries is France. However, France’s overseas possessions are organized very differently from those held by Britain, the Netherlands, or Denmark. 

Learn more about France’s Overseas Departments, the parts of France that are not in Europe, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve previously done episodes on the territories of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands. 

What they all have in common is that they once controlled much larger territories, and today, what is left of their empires is now a collection of small overseas territories. 

Britain has places like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, the Netherlands has Aruba and Curacao, and the United States has Guam and the US Virgin Islands. 

While the organization of these territories is different for each country, what they all have in common is that they are not a core part of the main country. People in Guam can’t vote for president, for example. People on Pitcairn Island aren’t represented in parliament. 

The key thing to know about France’s territories is that, for the most part, France doesn’t have territories, at least not in the same way that the countries I just listed do. 

To understand this, we first need to clarify and define a few things about France.

When I say France, you probably think of the roughly hexagonal-shaped country in Europe that popularized baguettes and is famous for having hundreds of different types of cheese. 

Indeed, that is France. 

However, that is not all of France. According to the way the country is organized, the European parts of France, including the island of Corsica, are unofficially called Metropolitan France. 

The rest of France is unofficially known as Overseas France.  Overseas France consists of 13 remnants of the French Empire. 

These 13 regions have different legal statuses within France and, as we’ll see, possibly different futures. 

The thirteen regions include five that are departments and regions of France. Five others are considered “overseas collectivities.”

Of the remaining three, one is called a Sui generis collectivity, one is called an overseas territory, and the final one has no real status and is just considered private property owned by the state of France. 

So with that, let’s start going through them, starting with the five overseas departments. 

An overseas department has the exact same legal status as every other part of Metropolitan France. That means that is, in every legal sense of the word, a part of France just as much as Hawaii is a part of the United States. 

The five overseas departments are French Guyana in South America, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, and Mayotte and Reunion in the Indian Ocean. 

These departments vote in French elections and have representatives in the French Parliament. 

French Guyana is located on the South American continent and is considered a special territory of the European Union. It has a very low population density, with an area about a seventh the size of Metropolitan France and a population of only 300,000. 

A fun trivia question is: what countries border France? People might get the European countries but totally overlook the fact that Brazil and Suriname both border France as well. 

It is perhaps best known as being the launch site for rockets from the European Space Agency and as the location of the famous French prison, Devil’s Island. 

The Guiana Amazonian Park is the largest national park in the European Union.

Guadeloupe and Martinique are both two of the larger islands in the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. They are only about 110 kilometers or 68 miles apart from each other at their closest point. 

Guadeloupe is a large butterfly-shaped island with other smaller islands around it, and it has a population of approximately 384,000.

Martinique is to the south of Guadeloupe and the nation of Dominica. It is a bit smaller than Guadeloupe and has a population of 361,000.

Mayotte and Reunion are both in the Indian Ocean. 

Mayotte is located approximately halfway between the island of Madagascar and the coast of Mozambique.

Reunion is located east of Madagascar and is the largest overseas department with a population of approximately 873,000.

These five departments, despite being an integral part of France, are culturally very different from Metropolitan France.  Europeans make up a small minority of the population in all of these departments. 

In French Guyana, the population is a mix of Afro-Caribbean people, people native to the region, as well as a mix of immigrants from other countries. 

In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the population is primarily Afro-Caribbean. 

In Mayotte, 97% of the population is Muslim, who are mostly ethnic Comorians, that being people from the nation of Comoros. The Comorians are themselves a mix of Arab, African, and Malagasy, the people from Madagascar. 

In Reunion, the population is largely Malagasy, along with Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Europeans. 

Each of these departments is worthy of its own episode in the future, but the point for this episode is that they are legally very much a part of France, but culturally, very different from France.

The next group is the regions categorized as an overseas collectivity. The category of overseas collectivity was created in 2003 in a French constitutional reform.

The difference between an overseas collectivity and an overseas department is that overseas collectivities have a greater ability to establish their own laws, except for cases of national defense, international relations, trade, currency, and judicial affairs.

The five overseas collectivities are French Polynesia, Saint Barthélemy (aka Saint Barths), Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna.

French Polynesia is the outlier in this group as it has the largest area and the largest population. It covers an area of the Pacific Ocean that is almost 2000 kilometers or 1200 miles and consists of 121 islands and atolls, 75 of which are inhabited. 

French Polynesia also has the status of an overseas country, which is basically a unique status given to it. 

It was the location of French nuclear weapons testing in 1962 when they could no longer perform tests in Algeria. 

French Polynesia is still listed on the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories, one of two French overseas territories to have this distinction.

French Polynesia has flirted with and rejected and flirted with the idea of independence for decades. There have been pro and anti-independence presidents elected in recent memory. 

The vast majority of the people speak French. However, about 20% of the population speak Tahitian, with other Polynesian dialects being spoken on the outer islands.

The other overseas collectivity in the Pacific is Wallis and Futuna.  Most people haven’t heard of Wallis and Futuna. It is two islands, Wallis and Futuna, and it is located between Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. 

Wallis and Futuna only have a population of 11,500 people, the vast majority of which are Polynesian. The islands are still divided into chiefdoms, with three on Wallis and two on Futuna. 

The other three overseas collectivities are in the Atlantic. 

Saint Pierre and Miquelon is the last remaining French territory in North America. They are two islands that lie just 12 miles or 20 kilometers off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. 

The islands were given to France by Britain after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Britain received all of New France, what is today Quebec, and they agreed to give St. Pierre and Miquelon to France in order to provide them with some limited fishing rights in the region. 

The French and the British swapped control of the islands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but they ended up in the control of the French. 

The islands served as a base for smuggling into the United States and Canada, which became even more active during American prohibition.

On June 17, 1939, the last public guillotining in history took place outside the prison on Saint-Pierre. 

During WWII, the island was invaded by Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle after the island’s administrator pledged loyalty to Vichy France. In a subsequent referendum, the population voted 98% in favor of the takeover by the Free French forces.

The current population is only 6,000 people. It is a frequent stop for cruise ships along the coast of Newfoundland 

The fishing rights and the oceanic economic zone of St. Pierre and Miquelon have frustrated Canada for decades. 

The other two overseas collectivities are in the Caribbean. One is Saint Martin, which is the northern half of the island of Saint Martin, which is shared with the Netherlands. 

The French control about 60% of the island’s area but only have about 43% of the people, with a total population of about 32,000.

Outside of a sign on the side of the road, you wouldn’t really notice going from one side of the island to the other. 

While the official language is French, there is probably less French spoken in Saint Martin than in any other French territory. Because it is a popular tourist destination and because it shares the island with the Netherlands, English and Dutch are widely spoken. 

It is also very close to the island and British territory of Anguilla, which is only about 8 kilometers or 5 miles from French Saint Martin.

The final overseas collectivity is the nearby island of Saint Barthélemy, often known as Saint Barths. 

Saint Barths lies about 30 kilometers or 19 miles southeast of the island of Saint Martin. 

The island was a former colony of Sweden, but they sold it to France in 1878 after a referendum was held where the people on the island voted to join France.

Today, the island has a population of 11,000 people and is best known as a vacation destination for the wealthy. Some of the highest-end luxury resorts in the Caribbean are in Saint Barths, and it also has one of the most challenging and dangerous airports in the world for pilots.

The territory that is classified as a Sui generis collectivity is New Caledonia in the Pacific. Sui generis is Latin for “of its own kind.”

New Caledonia is a Melanesian island located between Vanuatu and Australia. 

Outside of French Guyana, it is by far the largest French Territory by area. It has a population of approximately 271,000, 41% of whom are indigenous Kanak people. 

New Caledonia is rich in resources, and the movement for independence here has been stronger than in any current French territory. Violent unrest took place there throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and an agreement was reached that allowed for future referendums on independence to take place. 

Referendums were held in 2018 and in 2020, with independence being rejected both times, with 56.7% and 53.4% of the vote. One of the complaints about the referendums was that the vote was swayed by the 24% of the population that is of European ancestry. 

A referendum that was supposed to be held in 2023 was canceled. 

The eleven regions I just mentioned all have representation in the French parliament and can vote in French presidential elections. 

The only territory that actually has the official status of an overseas territory is the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. 

These are a collection of islands in the Indian and Southern Oceans and territory in Antarctica that have no native populations and only a skeleton team of a few hundred researchers who live there at any given time. 

The territory consists of Adélie Land, which is the wedge of Antarctica that France has claimed. 

The Crozet Islands between Madagascar and Antarctica.

The Kerguelen Islands which are located to the east of the Crozet Islands.

Saint Paul and Amsterdam Islands, which are located north of the Kerguelen Islands.

…and finally, a group known as the Scattered Islands, which are uninhabited islands around Madagascar. 

The very last bit of French territory, which has no real special legal status and is only considered state private property of the French government, is Clipperton Island. 

Clipperton is an uninhabited coral atoll located about 1,280 kilometers or 690 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico.

There have been attempts to populate the island over the years to strengthen sovereignty claims, but its remoteness and lack of freshwater caused all attempts to fail. 

There have been historical claims to the island by both the United States and Mexico, but they haven’t been pursued recently. Today the island and the area around it, is a nature reserve. Every few years, there are amateur radio operators who will make what is called a DXpedition, where they set up camp and talk to amateur radio operators around the world. 

France’s overseas departments, collectivities, and territories are the remnants of what was once a much larger Empire. Today, they are all, in some respect, part of the French Republic.