Yesterday evening I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. On top of taking place in an amazing location (you get a close up view onto the Eiffel Tower from there), this is also an important location for whoever is interested by questions of defence. A special organisation was created to address those questions. For the ANAJ IHEDN, defence means more than what you would first assume. Defence is cultural, intellectual, military and so much more.
The topic of yesterday’s conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets.
Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.
In this article, I will not refer to the DROM and COM, the inhabited overseas territories that everybody knows about – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Wallis et Futuna, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, Mayotte, French Guyana, etc. In this article I will only touch upon some of the examples which were discussed yesterday as the list of those French forgotten territories is long. I will start with the French possessions which are located in Europe. On top of the French enclaves in Germany, which I will not discussed as they are inhabited and not so uncommon, many islands, rocks, archipelago, houses, enclaves, etc. still belong to France; in my opinion, those places are worth knowing about.
In the south-west of France, a river called Bidassoa marks the border with Spain. In the middle of this river, the tiny “ile des Faisans” (3000 m2) is a historical curiosity and landmark. Most people believe that this island was named after the birds when it is actually referring to the use of this piece of land, which the nickname of the island, “the island of the Conference” gives us a hint. Indeed, the island has been widely used for diplomatic purposes. “Faisans” is in fact a reference to the “doers” or the diplomats and not to the birds. The island was indeed used several times to settle dispute between France and Spain. It was on the Bidassoa that Francois I was returned to France in exchange for his sons. It was also there that, in 1659, the marriage of Louis XIV and Marie Therese of Austria, daughter of Philip IV of Spain was settled, as agreed in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Since the treaty, the island is a French and Spanish condominium, meaning that, although the island is not inhabited, the police administering the territory changes every six months. Next February, France will then have to pass on the keys to Spain until next August. Although fastidious, this system has avoided many confrontations between the two neighbour countries which have used this island as a safe haven to decide on the destiny of the two nations. Only diplomats could have imagined this administrative arrangement..
The other example which is worth mentioning is actually quite a funny story as France is the owner of a ghost island in the Mediterranean, between Sicily and Malta. Ile Julia (or Ferdinandea for the Italians and Graham for the Brits) is particularly worth dwelling on as it no longer exists but might reappear. In 1831 an island appeared as a result of a submarine volcano eruption. The Italians rushed to claim ownership by throwing a row on this hot piece of land. The row burned, thus destroying the Italian sovereignty. The Brits then sent the navy, but the ship was too big to get close enough to put a flag. The French then sent a scientific mission to conquer the land and study the mysterious island. A few months later, the French government sent another mission to reinforce their settlement. The island was, however, no longer there. Turns out the island was only made of volcanic dust which had been washed away by the waves. So technically, France is the owner of a ghost island.
Maybe, someday, Julia Island will reappear. And due to its key strategic location, and despite France’s official sovereignty rights on Julia, there might be some opposition to France’s sovereignty claim. When the island reappears, it will be crucial to reassert the claim against the competitors… it must be remembered that the competition will be tough, especially considering that Italy placed a waterproof flag on the volcano after Mr. Fuligni joked in one of his article that France should do it….
There are many more examples I need to tell you about; they all have their own stories and their own quirks.
Next time, read about the special and tiny places France owns across the globe and which report to its national history, and more precisely to some very important figures.