A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. The topic of the 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.
This week, we will explore two islands located in the Pacific: Clipperton and Floréana. The first case is more of a classic one as it is claimed by France. The second one is a little bit quirkier as it official belongs to Ecuador, even if a French village claims their sovereignty over the island.
Located 1,300km off the coast of Mexico and 6,000 km away from Tahiti, from which it is administered, the atoll of Clipperton is the most isolated territory in the world. Clipperton spread over 6km² of land, in the middle of which a lagoon has formed. Clipperton gives France an exclusive economic zone of 425220 km² (more than that of metropolitan France), an important number considering the size of the territory, as well as in light of the local wildlife. The waters around Clipperton have been deemed rich in fish, and especially in tuna, which has allowed France to join the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission (I.A.T.T.C.). An automatic meteorological station has been in place there since 1980.
Previously called Ile de la Passion, or Passion Island, the islet was allegedly discovered by Magellan at the beginning of the 18th century. France, however, did not claim ownership before 1859. The name of Clipperton comes from the name of the British pirate Clippington, better known as Clipperton, who was left on the island by the privateer William Dampier in 1704. The islet was the object of a territorial dispute between the United States and Mexico as both wanted to exploit the guano the seabirds left there. Guano was of particular importance for the farming industry as it was used as a fertilizer. In 1897, despite being a French possession, the Mexicans set a settlement on Clipperton. In order to settle the dispute, the responsibility to decide was given by the International Court to Italy. In 1931, amidst the rise of Mussolini in Italy, the king Vittorio Emanuele III awarded the possession to France, in an effort to make a gesture and bring the two countries closer together as the Second World War was preparing. Clipperton was then used as a military base for the US Navy during World War Two.
Due to its geographic isolation, France has been unable to keep a close eye on the islet. Illegal and unregulated fishing has thus always been practiced, especially by Mexican fishermen. Today, France sends a military mission there every year in order to renew France’s sovereignty over Clipperton. This sovereignty is, however, not consecrated in the French constitution.
There have been many projects to set a scientific base, just like in the TAAF on Clipperton, in an effort to observe and study the local wildlife, as well as to assess the impact of pollution on this isolated island. As explained in the video below, the islet has been strongly impacted by maritime pollution, and Clipperton continues to be invaded by plastic wastes brought by the waves.
Named after the first president of Ecuador, Juan José Flores, the island of Floréana is located off the coast of Ecuador, in the archipelago of the Galapagos, in the Pacific Ocean.
In 1844, under Louis Philippe, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, François Guizot received a letter from a rich Frenchman offering the French government to acquire parts of the Galapagos islands as Flores wished to get rid of them in return for some money of which he was in dire need. This Frenchman, Léon Uthurburu, foresaw the strategic importance of those islands if a canal were to be built to cut through central America. The interest would be great for France as a canal would enable the Antilles and Tahiti to be connected much easier. The French government refused as the digging of what would become the Panama Canal was, at the time, unimaginable for them. Léon Uthurburu still acquired one of the island of the Galapagos, Floréana, for his own account. Single and childless, he left all his possessions to the village he came from, Barcus, in the French Basque country. Since then, the village has claimed ownership of the island, even though France recognized in 1887 that Ecuador was the true owner of Floréana. It must be noted that France timidly tried to support Barcus’s claim as soon as the Panama Canal was dug, without success.
Floréana is a volcanic island, uninhabited by humans but full of giant turtles and iguanas.
This is the last article of the series. France possesses more territories around the world, but those I have mentioned are the most important. I could have mentioned the various churches France owns in Rome, or the cave in Jerusalem, and many more. But for now, that is it.
With this world tour, we have travelled around the globe and explored France’s grandeur. France is much more than the metropole and goes far beyond Europe. Indeed, France is not a European power, but a world power as there are more French land and water outside of European than in. France remains an international power.