In March 2022, civil unrest erupted in Corsica after the murder of nationalist activist Yvan Colonna in a prison near Marseille. Several months before, in November 2021, the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique demonstrated against the public health measures imposed by Paris to stop the spread of Covid-19. France’s overseas territories are often the setting for protests. But does this mean that the inhabitants of these far-flung regions aspire to independence from the mainland? Let’s start with a little history to understand the question.
Aside from Algeria, which was conquered in 1830 and gained independence in 1962, most of the territories governed by France from the 19th century until the mid-20th century only spent a few decades under French rule. Of course, this does not apply to Corsica, a former Genoese province which became French in 1768, nor to the territories inherited from the first colonial empire before the 1789 Revolution. In 1848, following the abolition of slavery, the inhabitants of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Réunion Island were granted French citizenship and the right to vote. Then, after World War II, the “four old colonies” were given département status in 1946.
Meanwhile, the other French colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific were transformed into territoires d’outre-mer, “overseas territories.” Their inhabitants, then referred to as “citizen-subjects,” were given voting rights, but these only applied to local elections. At the start of the 1960s, France more or less willingly granted independence to most of these colonies. The last ones to gain international sovereignty were the Comoro Islands (not including Mayotte) in 1974, Djibouti in 1977, followed three years later by the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in 1980.
However, some territories have remained French and are now referred to as collectivités d’outre-mer, or “overseas collectivities”: French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna, which left Polynesia in 1961. They were later joined by Saint Barthelemy and the northern half of Saint Martin, which left Guadeloupe in 2007.
Governed by French Laws
Whatever their status, the diverse parts of this overseas ensemble are governed by several articles in the French Constitution. While the laws of the French Republic are applied, adaptations can be decided by these territorial entities to take local specificities into account. This mechanism is more or less extensive depending on the particular status of the territory. New Caledonia, and above all Polynesia, which has its own flag, are the closest to full sovereignty.
Spiteful comments such as “empire confetti” are sometimes used to describe these remains of France’s colonial heritage. However, this fails to take into account that, thanks to these mostly insular regions scattered across the globe, France has a maritime territory spanning some 3.9 million square miles – the second largest in the world after the United States (4.3 million square miles). What’s more, the seas and oceans around them are teeming with wealth – particularly in mineral terms – the extent of which we are only starting to realize.
Comprising almost 3 million inhabitants, the population of these overseas territories is larger than those of Armenia, Lithuania, or Qatar. Réunion alone, with its 860,000 inhabitants, is more populous than Luxemburg and Suriname, which each have 600,000.
In comparison, the places referred to by America as “territories” and “associated states,” which do not have the same status as the fifty official states, are home to some 4 million inhabitants – more than 3.2 million of whom live in Puerto Rico alone. Much like this island, Guam (165,000 inhabitants), the Northern Mariana Islands (55,000), and the U.S. Virgin Islands (106,000) have their own legislatures and governments but live by the Constitution of the United States. This is not the case in American Samoa (55,000) and a string of mostly uninhabited islands in the Pacific, which are referred to as “unorganized territories” where the U.S. Constitution is not applied.
These islands have a strong attachment to the United States. In a 2012 referendum, the people of Puerto Rico clearly declared (more than 60% of the vote) their desire to become an official American state. Just 5.5% of voters were in favor of independence.
The Discontent of French Overseas Territories
A powerful movement for independence, sometimes through armed struggle, defined political life in France’s overseas départements and territories from the 1960s to the 1980s. No one has forgotten the violence that ripped through New Caledonia in the 1980s, which was ended by the 1988 Matignon Agreements.
But gone is the age of assimilation when every section of France had to exist as one. For more than 20 years, thanks to constitutional changes made in 2003, overseas territories have a large say in their destinies and can choose how they are organized and governed.
While pro-independence movements worldwide are disappearing, or slowing down, as seen in New Caledonia, there is recurrent defiance and animosity towards the mainland government. This was seen during the recent presidential election, which saw a majority of protest votes made in the first round, on April 9. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon received 39.99% of votes, 21.30% went to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, while Macron only received 20.56%. This trend was confirmed in the second round on April 23, when 58% of ballots went to the leader of the Rassemblement National party.
Many Territories at a Disadvantage
Persistent inequalities with mainland France and developmental delays underpin and fan the flames of this dissent. It is worth mentioning that the GDP (gross domestic product) per inhabitant is much lower than on the mainland, with figures including (in 2019) 31% lower in Martinique, 79% in Mayotte, 37% in Guadeloupe, and 43% in Polynesia. To make matters worse, there are considerable price differences with the mainland, with food items ranging from 20% to 40% more expensive in the overseas territories.
Put at a disadvantage by their distance from France and their small domestic markets, the overseas départements and collectivités are still heavily dependent on the mainland – including for sourcing food. This makes it easier to understand the repeated protests against the cost of living and inadequate public services.
The political climate in Corsica, whose current status (aside from certain particularities) is much like the other mainland départements, is hardly different. The independentists, who were quick to resort to violence, have since joined the autonomists, whose movement has grown so popular that they now control a large number of the island’s centers of power.
Last March, the government hinted at a possible step towards Corsican autonomy. Much like Polynesia, Corsica may therefore be allowed to manage most of its domestic affairs. Under these potential new plans, it would have a president, a government, and a deliberative assembly. However, the French mainland government would retain many of its sovereign functions, overseeing matters such as defense, law and order, immigration, and currency.
A Path Towards Independence?
For those who are wondering if France has completed its process of decolonization, the list of “Non-Self-Governing Territories” drawn up (and periodically adjusted) by the U.N. offers some answers. This list includes Western Sahara, a region mainly controlled by Morocco, the New Zealand-governed archipelago of Tokelau, three American territories (Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), ten British territories, including Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Saint Helena, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, as well as the French overseas collectivities of Polynesia and New Caledonia. Theoretically, nothing is stopping these two collectivities from gaining independence. In fact, New Caledonians voted in a referendum in November 2018, followed by another in December 2021 – although the second one was boycotted by Kanak nationalists – to remain French.
Of course, the winds of history may change some day, and one or more of these pieces of “empire confetti” may choose to go it alone.