Islands off Canada mark 200 years of French rule
St Pierre and Miquelon, a string of remote, freezing islands off the coast of Canada, are this year celebrating 200 years of being French.
They may be 3,819km from Brest, the nearest point on the French west coast, but they have gendarmes, take the euro, and are part of the European Union; yet they lie 25km off the southern tip of Newfoundland.
“It is just like being in France,” said Paris-based author and researcher Bernard Decré, who visits the islands every year. “People there speak French without an accent.”
On St Pierre and Miquelon you will also find boulangeries, patisseries, and fine restaurants, as well as wine shops like the Comptoir d’Importation des Alcools which, Mr Decré says, is better than any on the mainland.
The archipelago of eight islands is the last remaining outpost of ‘New France’, an area that once stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
They were officially ‘discovered’ by Portugal in 1520, but by 1536 the islands were owned by France.
From 1778, they passed between France and Britain several times, before becoming permanently French in 1816.
The archipelago is named after the two inhabited islands, whose total population is only around 6,000. Most residents live in the port of St Pierre and are descended from Normans, Bretons and Basques.
Previously, the island of Langlade was also occupied, but the sandbar that connected it to Miquelon was swept away by a violent storm in the 18th century.
Langlade and St Pierre are separated by a six-kilometre strait with such fierce currents that local fishermen have nicknamed it ‘the Mouth of Hell.’
Despite these conditions, residents have traditionally earned their living by fishing, since the mainly infertile soil rules out much farming.
Cod used to be the islands’ main source of wealth, but declining stocks mean the focus is now mainly on salmon and scallop-fishing. Tourism has also become an increasingly important source of revenue.
First a colony, St Pierre and Miquelon then became a territoire d’outre-mer, or TOM, in 1946. From 1976 it was a département d’outre-mer, or DOM, and in 1985 it took the status collectivité d’outre-mer, or COM.
France has 13 territories outside Europe, collectively known as the DOM-TOMs, or DROM-COMs.
As a COM, St Pierre and Miquelon is structured in a similar way to a metropolitan region, with a territorial council, which elects a president, and an executive council.
It also sends a senator and an MP to the national parliament in Paris.
Spread across the globe from the Caribbean to the Antarctic, France’s DROM-COMs have more than two million inhabitants, and contribute 12 different time zones to France.
However, unlike the DOMs, St Pierre and Miquelon as a COM was not used in the UK government’s comparison temperature list for the Winter Fuel Payment. This would have made a difference, with winter temperatures between 7C and -0.1C.
However, the DROM-COMs are considered attractive destinations for civil servants, since work packages usually provide excellent conditions and benefits in order to compensate for the high cost of living.
Mr Decré said around 70% of employees living on St Pierre and Miquelon were civil servants. “Many people complain that these islands cost France too much, but I am a fierce defender, I think we should be proud. There is a lot of history there, and the people are very charming.”
Jacques Chirac visited the islands as president in 1987 and President François Hollande visited in 2014.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited in October, when he announced funding of up to €8million for a new cruise liner terminal, a study on a container terminal, and €2m support for the fishing industry.