Abstract: Empire- a project of exploration and exploitation. While days of mercantilism are over, what remains of the Empire? In the 21st Century are overseas territories as important as they were? Have they found their footing in international relations and law? Or are they still serving as satellites and centers feeding the Crown? The French and the English, at the height of their power, controlled the largest expanse of territories. This note seeks to highlight the historical narrative that has eclipsed their foreign territories to submission and complete cessation. A discussion on their relevance vis-à-vis their colonizers is also discussed to shed light on their territorial relevance/ reliance in the 21st century.
Doyens of the 21st-century ideals- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity have acted as pillars and yardsticks of the liberal democratic world order for nation-states. France, Paris, and other regions of the nation spew art and culture, Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Palace of Versailles. France is the epicenter of political, social, and cultural intercourse.
The French Republic is divided into regions. However, this is only true of the 12 of the 18 regions for France métropolitaine or la Métropole. An island in the Mediterranean the island of Corsica is the 13th piece in the rather complex remains of the Empire. Geographically speaking, Metropolitan France makes up 82% of the land, and 96% of the population of France. To remind ourselves of the remaining regions of France, we need to go outside of Europe and reflect upon the colonial regime.
From the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, and the region of Guadeloupe. The region is made up of 2 main islands: Basse-Terre, and Grande-Terre. The islands were annexed in 1674 and became an overseas department in 1946.Guadeloupe is unique since it has its own dependencies: Îles des Saintes, Marie-Galante, and la Désirade. Any of the dependencies have the option of upgrading to an overseas collectivity at any point if they so choose. And that’s exactly what happened with Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin, former dependencies that became their overseas collectivities in 2007. More on them later.
The next overseas department is also in the Caribbean: Martinique. The island was first colonized by the French in the 17th century, despite resistance from the indigenous people already inhabiting the island. The island also came under British occupation several times throughout its history, but sovereignty was transferred back to France after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and has been a French possession ever since, becoming an overseas department in 1946.
Moving a little bit south for the 3rd overseas region, to South America, where we find the largest of the overseas regions: French Guiana. The general area of South America is known as The Guianas, during colonial rule, were 5 Guianas: Spanish, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese Guiana. Records show, Spanish Guiana became part of Venezuela, British Guiana became the independent country of Guyana, Dutch Guiana became the independent country of Suriname, French Guiana stayed French Guiana but was transferred from a colony to an overseas region, and Portuguese Guiana became part of Brazil. French Guiana is by far the largest of all the departments of France. For the next 2 overseas regions, we need to travel to a completely different part of the world: the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Madagascar. About 700 km east of Madagascar, is the island of Réunion. About 40% of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park. And finally, the smallest and least populous of the French regions: Mayotte- 300 km west of Madagascar, and geographically part of the Comoro Islands. The country of Comoros still claims the island of Mayotte, but the island overwhelmingly voted in favor of remaining part of the French Republic when Comoros became independent in 1975. The other 3 islands voted for independence. Those, thus, are the 5 overseas regions of France, all of which are also ‘overseas departments of France, as all the regions are made up of just 1 single department.
The department(s)- formulate themselves as an integral part of the country of France. All these territories, remains of the Empire- are French. In other words, they are part of France. This means that all these regions, despite not being in Europe, are part of the European Union. They are a part of the Eurozone, meaning the Euro is their legal tender, however, unlike mainland France, they are not part of the Schengen Area.
In these “overseas collectivities” they remain under French sovereignty, all of which have varying degrees of autonomy. For instance, French Polynesia, in the South Pacific has its President, having a “special status” within the Republic. The islands were annexed by France in 1880, at the time known as French Establishments in Oceania. The Caribbean Islands now, and the previously mentioned Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin- both used to be dependencies of the overseas region of Guadeloupe. But broke away to become their overseas collectivities in 2007. Saint Barthélemy, which was a Swedish colony for nearly a century but was later sold to France in 1878. The Swedish influence can still be seen today in the island’s coat of arms, depicting the 3 crowns from Sweden’s coat of arms. Saint Martin, the French overseas collectivity, makes up about 60% of the island of Saint Martin, the other 40% is one of the 4 constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, also called Sint Maarten.
Territories such as Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the only remnant of the former colonial empire of New France that remains under French control. “New France” was the colonial efforts of the French Empire in North America.
However, New France was ceded to the British and the Spanish in the Treaty of Parisin 1763. Spain later returned the French land in 1800 but was then later sold to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase. Thus, Saint Pierre and Miquelon is the last remaining part of French land in North America – a French overseas collectivity. However, the archipelago has gone through several political status changes in the last 70 years.
The French Southern and Antarctic Lands, which are referred to as a territorial collectivity, are made up of various islands in the Southern Indian Ocean, as well as France’s claim to Antarctica. None of the islands have a permanent population, and due to the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, French claims on the continent are not recognized as sovereign. In sum, mainland France, which, together with the island of Corsica, makes up Metropolitan France. As opposed to Overseas France – the five overseas regions and departments, which together with Metropolitan France make up the actual country of France. Then there’s also the 5 overseas collectivities, one “special” collectivity, one overseas territorial collectivity, and one overseas minor territory. All… French.
The nations that make up the United Kingdom- the crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories are in sum, a total of 14 overseas territories. The British, unlike the French, have had to enforce pressure to attempt preservation of control. For instance, the Falklands Islands, the British Antarctic claim, or even Gibraltar off the south coast of Spain. One of the most controversial overseas territories is the Falklands Islands. Argentina waged claims over the islands in 1982, in retaliation the British government refused to consent. Now in war with Argentina over the islands, Argentina argued that since the Treaty of Tordesillas split South America between Spain and Portugal and given the proximity to the islands, they would belong to them. In response, the British argued that they have been occupants of the region since 1833- thus, have a historic claim.
Like the Falkland Islands, the British have been holding onto these regions since time immemorial. Many British overseas territories have a three-pronged rationale underpinning their status- military presence, economic connectivity, and status as financial safe-havens.
Concerning military purposes, take, for instance, Gibraltar. It sits on the south side of the Iberian peninsula and has been used on many occasions for military conflicts. Most notably during World War II when it was used as a refueling station for the allied nations.
These territories also allow Britain to operate effectively around the globe. Some might argue even act as agents to enable Britain to maintain its international presence. In return, every citizen of British Overseas territory is eligible for British citizenship under their British overseas territory citizenship which not only gives them automatic entry to the United Kingdom but also, an incredibly powerful influential passport. In addition, the British government takes responsibility for certain aspects of the overseas territories. In a paper published in 2012, they specifically claim to support six areas concerning territories. These are defense security and the safety of territories and their people, successful and resilient economies, cherishing the environment, making government work better, vibrant and flourishing communities, and productive links with the wider world. While the British have adopted a noble approach towards its engagement with the Territories. Things, one might argue, have been so rosy.
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Writ large, these regions, due to historic links to Britain and France are intertwined by a slim thread of the remains of the Empire. All of these territories are the product of colonialism. Colonialism, which some might argue is a brutal, greedy, racist period of history. The people in these countries were conquered and ruled by this ruthless power, who forced them to adopt their language, their government, and their economic structures. Yet here we are centuries later in a globalized economy, where the world governmental order and system was invented by these big colonizing powers. France and Britain hold on to all of these islands, because of their vested interests. That is not an easy tension to resolve. These regions will keep their sprawling, low-key empire around the world. And France’s longest border will continue to be not with Belgium or Spain, but with Brazil.
He is reading Law at Jindal Global University and has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Affairs. He is also the co-founder and president of the Jindal Society of International Law.