Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon, Scattered French Islands in America

In the North Atlantic Ocean, some twelve miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the 6,274 inhabitants of the archipelago of Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon live on Paris time. The overseas collectivity is a scattering of islands left over from the French Empire, and fishing was its mainstay until the 1990s. But today, the islanders are using their “Frenchness” to reboot the local economy.
© Patricia Detcheverry

On the Place du Général de Gaulle, the tricolor flags fly all year round. The gendarmes wear the traditional kepi military cap, the license plates all feature the letter “F,” and everyone speaks perfect French. Located some 2,700 miles from Paris on the same latitude as Nantes, the Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon archipelago makes up the closest French overseas territory to mainland France.

Americans enjoy the impression of being in France, while the mayoux – a local expression used to describe people from mainland France – feel like they are in the United States. The school buses in the archipelago are yellow, just like in the U.S. And the houses are covered with clapboard painted in bright colors, and also feature insulated double-door entrance halls known as tambours, or “drums” – just like in Canada. These architectural characteristics are quite necessary given the harsh climate. Average temperatures in winter drop to 5°F, and when the large snowflakes fall the locals say “it’s snowing Basque berets!”

© Patricia Detcheverry

Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon in Literature

The mist hanging over the islands for three months a year inspired the nickname “land of shadows” in Chateaubriand’s 1791 Memoirs from Beyond the Grave. “Its coast showed like a black hump through the fog […]. I waited until a gust of wind tore the mist asunder and showed me the place in which I was living and, so to speak, the faces of my hosts in this land of shadows.” And in the words of French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Saint-Pierre is the “Isle of Reproach” and the “the poorest and most desolate island in the world.”

Other writers inspired by the archipelago include Pierre Schoendoerffer (The Drummer Crab, 1976), Hervé Jaouen (L’Adieu aux îles, 1986), Didier Decoin (Louise, 1998), Alexis Gloaguen (Les Veuves de verre, 2010; Digues de ciel, 2014) and Yann Queffélec. But the only one actually born in Saint-Pierre lives in the United States – a certain Eugène Nicole. The professor of French literature at New York University published the first tome of a literary saga, L’œuvre des mers, in 1988. Set in Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon, it blends a family’s story with collective history and mythology, and remains the most extensive work about “these fly droppings between the land’s edge and the ocean.”

An Overseas Archipelago

Getting to the archipelago is already an adventure in itself. Those traveling from France require a biometric passport and an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA). Americans, on the other hand, only need a passport. There are currently no direct flights, and at least one stopover is obligatory. Visitors either touch down in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Montreal, or in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the local Air Saint-Pierre airline operates an ATR 42 aircraft with less than 50 seats. However, from July to August, ASL Airlines France offers direct flights between Saint-Pierre and Paris lasting less than seven hours.

To the south of the archipelago, the ten square miles of Saint-Pierre (nicknamed le Caillou, “the Pebble”) are inhabited by almost 90% of the population. The island is also home to the smallest French prison (5 cells and 11 beds), as well as the seaport and airport. Miquelon (42 square miles) lies to the north, and has just 641 inhabitants and a vast number of infrastructures. An eight-seater Reims-Cessna F406 aircraft and a boat provide passage between the two islands.

Langlade and its 35 square miles has no running water or electricity, and is a summer vacation spot for Saint-Pierre locals. A strip of sand stretching for some eight miles connects it to Miquelon. The water separating the two main islands is known as the “Mouth of Hell,” as 600 boats have been shipwrecked there since the 19th century. The archipelago also contains a multitude of small deserted islands such as the Ile aux Vainqueurs and the Ile aux Pigeons, while the Ile aux Marins is a popular tourist site, and Le Grand Colombier is populated by rare birds.

© Patricia Detcheverry

A French Identity

Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon takes a pragmatic approach to its insular nature. All its systems (from courts and schools to the administration and the postal service) are French, but there is also a palpable Canadian influence. While locals are partial to games of Basque pelota, they also follow hockey – Canada’s national sport.

Major medical operations are performed at a Newfoundland hospital, and a boat carrying fresh produce arrives every Monday from Halifax. “When the boat needs repairs, the store shelves can be empty for two weeks,” says Patricia Detcheverry, a hotel owner in Saint-Pierre. “Everything here is more complicated and more expensive because it comes from elsewhere. You have to be very patient.”

While this precarious situation is not ideal, the islanders do enjoy special access to their representatives and elected officials. Under French law, Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon was first an Overseas Territory, then briefly a département between 1975 and 1986, and is now an Overseas Collectivity. This status allows the archipelago to apply its own tax regulations and be represented on regional cooperation bodies – on an equal footing with Canada and the United States. Its prefect Thierry Dévimeux and representative Stéphane Claireaux (La République en marche) represent the islands’ inhabitants. The current French minister for Overseas Territories, Annick Girardin, was elected in 2007. This independence enables the archipelago to print its own stamps, much to the delight of the world’s philatelists.

202 Years of History

Despite being so small, le Caillou has a rich history. Originally discovered by Jacques Cartier in the 16th century, it was first inhabited by Breton, Norman, and Basque sailors. The flags of these three regions are still used on the local coat of arms. The territory was long coveted by both France and England, and changed owner seven times before finally becoming French for good in 1816.

“The people of Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon have been exempted from military service since the time of the Directory,” says Marc Cormier, a consular advisor in Toronto and an expert in the archipelago’s history. “Nevertheless, they have always rallied to the call when France was at war.” The islanders actually fought on the front alongside colonial troops, and some 100 soldiers gave their lives for France between 1914 and 1918.

Following the end of World War I, Saint-Pierre was able to take advantage of its geographic location and its French identity. During the Prohibition era of the 1920s, inhabitants used French laws and taxes to make a fortune by using the archipelago a transshipment hub for liquor. Over this period, 350,000 cases of bottles went through the island every month. After being imported from Canada and stocked at the port, they were then shipped out by smugglers at night. The godfather of the Chicago mafia, Al Capone himself, even supposedly spent a night at the Robert Hotel, and left behind his hat which is now exhibited with other mementoes from the time.

The First Territory of Free France

One historical event continues to make locals proud. During World War II, the archipelago was the first territory to join General de Gaulle’s Free France. Using longwave radio and a transatlantic telegraph cable, Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon was in a strategic position at the opening of a shipping route used by boats to bring supplies to England.

With the authorization of the British (but against the wishes of Franklin Roosevelt), Admiral Emile Muselier helped rally the islands to General de Gaulle’s cause. On Christmas Eve in 1941, he arrived in Saint-Pierre with 230 men. Over the course of a meeting, almost all the inhabitants chose to reject the Vichy government without a single shot being fired. More than 500 volunteers (including 55 women) signed up to fight in the Free French Forces. De Gaulle himself honored this effort as president of the French Republic while visiting the archipelago on July 20, 1967. “France loves and respects these islands,” he said. “I have come to pass on the message.”

© Patricia Detcheverry

The Golden Age of Fishing

A mare labor, or “work comes from the sea,” is the motto of Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon, and is a reminder of the local mainstay until the Canadian government outlawed fishing the endangered local cod in 1992. Dozens of boats of all nationalities would drop anchor at the port, and sailors would spend the night in the town’s various bars and clubs. Everything in the archipelago was structured around this mono-economy, which influenced its history and even the local vocabulary. A collision between two vehicles is an abordage (used to describe two boats hitting each other), you “moor” your shoes when you tie your laces, and “board” your bed when going to sleep at night.

Today, a few small fishing and sailing boats are all that remain of the “forest of masts” from years ago. In Miquelon, two trawlers catch a few tons of cod every year, which the employees salt and pack on site. Seafood is also part of the islanders’ daily diet. “Sometimes in the summer, the price by weight for ham is twice as expensive as lobster,” says Patricia Detcheverry.

Frenchness Powering the Economy

The end of the great age of fishing forced Saint-Pierre locals to diversify their economic activities by developing other types of aquaculture and fishing, including snow crabs, lobsters, and the sea cucumbers so prized by the Chinese market. Foie gras and king scallops are also produced in Miquelon.

The Francoforum language school has been promoting the regional particularity of the archipelago since 1992. This program funded by the French Territorial Council offers fully immersive French education in Saint-Pierre. It welcomes almost 700 English-speaking teachers and students for language courses in summer and winter every year. Promoting local tourism and French culture, and providing young graduates with career opportunities are some of the key challenges now faced by the archipelago. And each will be met with relish, as they say in the region, “weather permitting.”

Article published in the April 2018 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.