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This article focuses on the Territories of France. It is part of a three-part series explaining the current day situation of the remnants of the colonial empires of the early 20th century, almost all of which are small islands scattered around the world. Other parts of the territories series examine the status of British territories and U.S. territories.
At its peak in 1929, France held one of the world’s largest empires during the early 20th century, controlling 12,898,000 square kilometers (4,980,000 square miles)—roughly or 8.7% of the Earth’s land area. A full 72 countries were part of France at one time or another.
Since 1929, the size of the French empire has shrunk dramatically. But like other European colonial powers, the French empire never disappeared entirely. Today, you can find the vestiges of the French Empire in islands and territories located around the world. Let’s take a closer, in depth look at what remains of the once colonial territories of France.
Map of French Territories
Legal Status of French Territories
There is a distinct difference between the way France treats its overseas former colonies and the way other countries (the Dutch, Brits, and Americans) have treated the fall of their empires. Non-European parts of France have a very different collective status than the territories of other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
Technically speaking, all of the overseas parts of France are considered an integral part of France.
All people who live in overseas France can vote in French elections and have representation in the French parliament. This is very different than the territories of the U.S. or UK, the vast majority of which are not considered integral parts of these countries.
So to an extent, France doesn’t have territories in the same way as other countries. France is just a single country, which happens to be scattered all over the world. The non-European parts of France are collectively called the Départements et Territoires D’outre-mer or, the Departments and Territories Overseas.
But for the purposes of explaining what’s happened to the French empire after colonialism, note that the term “territory” will be used interchangeably with the term “department,” but know that the word territory has a different use in the French system than it does in other countries.
And then to make it all more confusing, there is one area called a territory in the French system, but it’s uninhabited—we’ll get to that, let’s dive into everything you need to know about modern France.
French Overseas Regions
France is divided into 18 regions, which are fundamentally similar to what’s referred to as states or provinces in other countries. Of those total regions, 13 are located in Europe (12 in mainland France and one in Corsica). These are collectively referred to as Metropolitan France.
The other five regions are overseas regions and have equal status with other regions that might come top of mind when you think of France, such as Normandy or Brittany.
The five overseas regions of France are:
- Guadeloupe (Caribbean)
- Martinique (Caribbean)
- French Guiana (South America)
- Mayotte (Indian Ocean)
- Réunion (Indian Ocean)
To use an analogy, these regions have the same status in France that Hawaii does in the United States. Hawaii is a full and equal state within the U.S., and the overseas regions of France have similar status.
Regions in Metropolitan France are further divided into departments. In the case of the overseas regions, however, each region is co-existent with a single department. The analogy here might be to U.S. states and their counties. Every U.S. state is subdivided into counties (or parishes in the case of Louisiana). So going with that analogy, the overseas regions of France would be like U.S. states with only one county.
French Overseas Collectivities
Most, but not all, of the remaining populated parts of overseas France are called overseas collectivities. France currently has five overseas collectivities—each one has representation in the French Parliament and can vote for president, but its status is not quite that of a region.
A good analogy for these might be the territories of Canada or Australia. That means these overseas collectivities are part of the country, have full voting rights, but are not quite on the same level as a province or state, mainly due to low population.
The five overseas collectivities of France include:
- Saint-Barthélemy (Caribbean)
- Saint-Martin (Caribbean)
- Saint Pierre and Miquelon (North America)
- Wallis and Futuna (Pacific)
- French Polynesia (Pacific)
French Polynesia is the only of the overseas collectivity that has a larger population than France’s overseas region, (it’s slightly larger than Mayotte).
French Overseas Territories
Let’s talk about France’s position in the south. Really far south. There’s one place in the world considered a French territory in the traditional sense of the word, and that’s the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises).
This territory is entirely uninhabited and consists mostly of small islands in the Indian Ocean. These islands have no representation in the French legislature (because no one lives there).
Many of the islands France claims possession of are disputed and also claimed by other countries.
Special Status Islands
New Caledonia is a territory that was granted statut particulier in 1998. It’s considered neither a region nor a collective of France.
During the 1980s, there was a great deal of violence and political turmoil on the island. That culminated in the 1998 Nouméa Accord, which created a special status for the territory and mandated that a referendum would take place in 20 years. That referendum took place in spring 2019, and New Caledonia voted to stay with France.
As part of this special status, the people of New Caledonia have a special New Caledonian citizenship, which is held parallel to French citizenship.
The other speck of land with a special status is Clipperton Island. Clipperton is an uninhabited coral atoll located approximately 1,000 km southwest of Mexico. The island has no particular status in the French territorial organization, it’s simply land owned by the government and under the control of the Minister of Overseas France.
It has never had a permanent human population, but it has been used in the past for military and scientific purposes.
Populated Parts of Overseas France
For all practical purposes, 11 distinct parts of overseas France are populated and can be visited. I’ve personally visited seven of the 11 places on an island-hopping journey of the Caribbean, and I hope to visit the remaining four over the next several years.
All of these populated territories are in or border the Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean, or the Indian Ocean.
Saint-Martin is a French overseas collective that constitutes the northern half of the island of Saint Martin, which it shares with the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten. Formerly part of the region of Guadeloupe, it became a separate overseas collective in 2003. The French side makes up about 60% of the area and 55% of the population of the island.
The international airport and the cruise ship terminal, however, are both located on the Dutch side of the island. The ferry to St Barts is also located on the Dutch side of the island. There’s a small airport on the French side, but it’s only used for regional flights to other islands.
While the island is divided between two countries, the two sides are quite integrated. Both sides use the Euro and there is no border control.
While French is the official language, English is spoken more widely there than in any other French territory due to the split nature of the island, and its heavy reliance on tourism.
The French side is located only seven kilometers from the British island of Anguilla.
Guadeloupe was once a French colony and is now one of the five overseas regions of France. It’s the most populated European territory in the Americas, with a population of just over 400,000. As with all overseas regions, it is considered part of the European Union and it uses the Euro as its currency. It is not, however, considered part of the Schengen Zone—Guadeloupe is allocated four deputies in the National Assembly.
It’s located in the Lesser Antilles between the British Territory of Montserrat and the nation of Dominica. The region consists of three populated islands. Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre, the largest and main islands, are separated by a narrow straight and connected by two bridges. The smaller islands of La Désirade, Les Saintes, and Marie-Galante are also part of the region. The international airport is located on the island of Grande-Terre, close to the center of the two major islands. The capital of the region is Basse Terre which is located on the island of the same name.
French is the official language, but Guadeloupean Creole is widely spoken by most of the non-European population.
The islands of Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy were formerly part of the region of Guadeloupe but were separated and became overseas collectivities in 2003.
Martinique is located only 70 miles (115 km) south of Guadeloupe. It’s located between the islands of Dominica and Saint Lucia. With 385,551 people, Martinique has a slightly smaller population than Guadeloupe and a slightly smaller area. That said, it also has four deputies in the National Assembly.
Fort-de-France is the capital of the region, and it’s located on the leeward (western) side of the island. The international airport is also located near Fort-de-France.
Martinique is connected to Guadeloupe by air and ferry service. The ferry takes about 4.5 hours to get from Martinique to Guadeloupe, with a 30 minute stop in Dominica along the way. There is also a less frequent service to Saint Lucia as well. Check the ferry website for times and prices.
Saint Barts is the smallest of the French Caribbean islands, with a population of under 10,000 people. It’s mostly known as a high-end vacation retreat for the rich and famous. Formerly a Swedish colony, it was given back to France in 1878, hence the name of the capital city is a very non-French “Gustavia.”
To get to St Barts you first need to go to St. Martin. From there you can take a ferry or a short flight. Flights originate from both the Dutch and French side of St. Martin and last a mere 15 minutes. Ferry services originate on both the French and Dutch side of the island as well.
The Saint Barts airport is known for being one of the most dangerous/exciting approaches of any airport in the world.
French Guiana is the only part of overseas France that is not an island. The region borders Brazil and Suriname, which makes for a great trick trivia question when asked: “What countries border France?” Since French Guiana is actually considered a part of France, Brazil and Suriname really do border France!
Despite being the only part of overseas France located on a continent, it’s not well populated. French Guiana has a population of a quarter million people and a density of only two people per square kilometer, making it one of the least densely populated places on Earth. Only Mongolia and Greenland have lower population densities. Its low population is primarily due to the fact that most of the land is a thick, impenetrable rainforest.
This part of Overseas France is best known as the launch location for the European Space Agency because its the closest part of the EU to the Equator.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Saint Pierre and Miquelon are two small islands located off the coast of the island of Newfoundland. These islands are the last vestiges of European colonial rule in North America. Traditionally, the economy was based on fishing, but today it’s mostly based on tourism. It’s a popular stop for cruise ships traveling along the coast of Canada and it counts as an international port, which confers benefits to ships with such an itinerary.
With a population of only 6,000 people, it’s the smallest of the overseas collectivities. Its remote location and high prices drive many of the locals to move to metropolitan France or to Canada.
Getting to St Pierre isn’t difficult: There are flights from St. John’s, Halifax, and Montreal. Many cruise ships also stop there, and there’s a passenger and car ferry, too
Wallis and Futuna
One of the lesser known overseas collectivities, Wallis and Futuna are two Pacific islands located right between Fiji and Samoa. Although these are Polynesian islands, they are not part of French Polynesia, which lies much further to the east.
Geographically, the collectivity consists of Wallis Island (which has an atoll around the center island) and the Hoorn Islands, which consist of Futuna and Alofi. The island groups are separated by 145 miles (230km).
With a population of only 15,000 people, it’s the third smallest department, behind only St. Pierre and Miquelon and St. Barts.
Flights to Wallis and Futuna leave from Noumea, New Caledonia, and Nadi, Fiji. Aircalin is the only airline that flies to Wallis, so flights tend to be expensive. It also flies between Wallis and Futuna several times a week.
French Polynesia geographically is the largest overseas collectivity of France, taking up an enormous swath of the Pacific Ocean, if you include territorial waters. It consists of 118 atolls and islands, 67 of which are inhabited. It has a total population of 280,000 people, of which 180,000 live on the island of Tahiti, the capital of the region.
Tourism dominates the economy, mainly on the larger islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, and others. Most of the islands with small populations receive few, if any, visitors.
Next to New Caledonia, French Polynesia has the most active independence movement of any French overseas department. Pro-independence parties have even recently held power in the local legislature.
French Polynesia is one of the easiest territories to visit with international flights from many countries around the Pacific. Flights from Europe usually stop in the U.S. or Canada en route.
New Caledonia has the most delicate political situation currently. Located in the Melanesian region of the Pacific, the territory is not considered an overseas region nor an overseas collective. It has a sui generis (unique) status in the French overseas ecosystem.
Much of this stems from pro-independence violence that occurred in the 1980s. This resulted in the 1998 Noumea Accord, which granted autonomy to the island and allowed for the independence vote that happened in early 2019 (they voted to stay with France).
The native Kanak people now only represent 40% of a total population of 268,000. The other major groups are those from Europe, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, and Southeast Asia. In addition to tourism, nickel mining is the major economic activity on the island.
Mayotte is one of two overseas regions in the Indian Ocean. It’s located in between northern Madagascar and northern Mozambique. The region consists of two major islands: Grande-Terre and Petite-Terre, with several other smaller islands around them.
Most of the population is Comorian, which are a mix of people from Arabia, Persia, and Madagascar. And a whopping 97% of the region is Muslim, with approximately two-thirds of the population being born in the region.
Unlike some other regions, Mayotte has voted strongly in support of political union with France. In 2009, they voted with over 95% approval to become the 101st department of France. The nearby country of Comoros claims the islands but has taken no serious actions since the 1970s.
Réunion is the other overseas region of France, and the largest overseas region in terms of population, with over 850,000 inhabitants. A single island, it’s located 680 km (420 miles) off the east coast of Madagascar and is approximately 100 miles from the nation of Mauritius.
The population is primarily creole (mixed) with ancestries coming from Madagascar, Europe, India, and China. Unlike Mayotte, the population is mostly Catholic, with small numbers of Hindus and Muslims.
So although France doesn’t really have French territories in the formal sense of the word, many of the former French colonies that were part of the French empire are now integrated into France as a whole. There are also many, many former colonies that no longer have any ties to France, including colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia, and other regions of the world. If you’re fascinated by this part of French history, An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914 is a long and more academic read, but still fascinating.