Decolonization, History and Culture, Security & Defense

France’s forgotten territories: The TAAF

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, our world tour continues. We are moving to another part of the world, on the other side of the planet. In the Southern hemisphere, France possesses several territories regrouped under the TAAF, the “terres australes et antactiques française“. This group of territories is made of five districts of islands and land. What those have in common is that they are permanently inhabited – let me emphasize the “permanently” because scientists regularly explore them – they are also natural reserves. They have acquired the status of overseas territories in 1955 (and 2005 for the îles Éparses) which granted them financial and administrative autonomy.

The TAAF give France 2 300 000 km² of exclusive economic zone (EEZ), contributing to France’s maritime power. They also are rich in natural resources, notably the îles Éparses which are located off the shore of Mozambique, a region rich in fossil fuel.

Two ships make those pieces of land reachable: the Marion Dufresne from Saint-Pierre, Réunion and the Astrolabe from Australia to Terre Adélie. The TAAF are so original and peculiar that the troops and scientists deployed there have developed their own words to adapt to the local conditions. A new dialect was born: the Taafien.

Terre Adélie

Base Dumont d'Urville is located 5 km off the continental coast of Antartica

Base Dumont d’Urville is located 5 km off the continental coast of Antarctica

Terre Adélie is a piece of the antarctic continent internationally recognized as belonging to France. The Treaty of Washington of 1959 ‘froze’ all sovereignty claims in an effort to use the Antarctic for peace and science and not as another proxy of the Cold War. The nuclearization and weaponization of the Antarctica is thus prohibited. The Madrid Protocol added an environmental component to the Treaty, thus ensuring the protection of the nature of Antarctica.

The scientific base Dumont d’Urville, which was named after the Frenchman who discovered and claimed the territory in 1840, was built in 1956. It has an international scope and includes the study of the local wildlife which includes emperor penguins, the study of geology, seismology, climate and meteorology, and much more.

France’s piece of land spreads over 432 000 km² of ice (bigger than Germany), from the South Pole to the ocean. France shares its longest land border there, with Australia.

Iles Éparses

Map of Iles Eparses - Aurélie Boissière

Map of Iles Eparses – Aurélie Boissière

The Iles Éparses, or the scattered islands, do not form a homogeneous group as the district is made of several archipelagos separated by hundreds of kilometers. They are mostly located in the Mozambique Canal, around Madagascar and La Réunion.

The Iles Eparses are constituted by l’archipel des Glorieuses, Juan de Nova, Europa and Bassas da India, and Tromelin. They are all permanently inhabited but welcome military contingencies and meteorologists which are responsible for ensuring France’s sovereignty over the territories.

The weather station plays an important role in the region as the data collected serves to monitor cyclones, a recurrent problem in the region. All the islands are also natural reserves as they have been barely touched by civilization.

This district of the TAAF remains, however, the object of a dispute between France and Madagascar. In 1960, Madagascar seized independence from its colonizer, France. However, three months before the referendum took place, a decree was passed in France removing the Iles Eparses from Madagascar’s vote. The islands thus remained attached to the hexagon while Madagascar retrieved its independence. In 1970, the issue was brought up by the local government, asking France to return the islands. Since 1979, the dispute brought to the United Nations, which issued a resolution urging France to engage negotiations with Madagascar. The resolution had not results and the situation is still not settled. It has been announced that the litigation will be discussed at the next General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2016.

The contentious has risen again over the last few months as the Iles Eparses may be floating over large reserves of oil, which of course have raised both Madagascar and France’s attention. The President of Madagascar offered France to co-administer the islands with them, a proposal which was naturally brushed off by the French.

It must be noted that the island of Tromelin is also the object of a territorial dispute as Mauritius is also claiming sovereignty.

District de Saint-Paul et Amesterdam, District de Crozet, District de Kerguelen 

The Kerguelen islands emerged 40 millions years ago and are the visible part of submerged volcano. They, however, appeared differently than the typical volcanic islands do (such as Iceland and Hawaii), which made the archipelago very interesting and important in the eyes of scientists. The main island, Grand Terre was discovered in 1772 and claimed in the name of France by Yves Joseph Kerguelen de Trémarec, who gave his name to the territory.

Follow the blog of the missions deployed there here. The islands are of particular importance from a scientific point of view as they serve as observatory for climate change for example.

The District of Saint-Paul and Amsterdam is very rich in fish and lobster, and famous for their wildlife. While Saint-Paul is relatively abandoned, Amsterdam island hosts a scientific base which has been put in place in 1949. The presence of human life there has impacted the local fauna and flora drastically, with irremediable consequences.

The Crozet islands are made out of two main groups of islands, located 110 km apart, somewhere between Madagascar and Antarctica. They were discovered by the French explorer Marc-Jospeh Marion-Dufresne in 1772, who gave his name to the ship supplying and reaching most TAAF. Administered from Madagascar between 1923 and 1955, the islands then became a TAAF, thus falling under the administration of the Ministry of the Overseas. The Edgar Faure scientific base implanted there focused on meteorological concerns.

The TAAF, although made of what seems like insignificant islands in the middle of the seas, actually bring France with various economic, geostrategic and environmental advantages. They also contribut to making France the second maritime domaine, right behind the USA, with 11 millions of km² of EEZ. The TAAF are for the most part made out of ice but they are crucial for scientific research.