Saturday, May 26, 2007

Petit France

Some trivia for a Saturday afternoon: where was the first place to cast ballots in last month’s French presidential election?

If you guessed the tiny islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, about twenty-five kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland, then you’re right.

Being a fan of, oh, let's call them quirks of maritime history, I've been following the goings-on in this little place for quite some time, though I've yet to visit. The two main islands in the archipelago (which consists of eight islands in total), St. Pierre and Miquelon, are home to about 6,000 inhabitants and are an "overseas collectivity" of France, which means, essentially, that they are considered part of the mother country in all ways, except for very local matters, which are governed by a colonial council.

There is a small airline that connects St. Pierre and Miquelon to a few major Canadian cities, Halifax and Montreal among them, but because of the low load volume on these little planes, you'd better be prepared to pay up. The cheapest way to get there is to get yourself to Newfoundland and then catch the ferry from the little town of Fortune, the "Gateway to the French Islands," as it bills itself, on the west side of the Burin peninsula.

But bring your passport. And don't expect to burn off those extra loonies you’ve got left over from the St. John's Tim Hortons in the local cafes. Like France itself, the islands use the Euro. And those crazy European power outlets, too.

The locals here have deeper roots in North America than just about anyone, save for Native peoples. French (mainly Basque) fishermen first showed up here during the summer months back in the sixteenth century, and had set up a permanent settlement by the mid-seventeenth. After France was defeated by the British in North America during the Seven Years War, the 1763 peace settlement left France, once master of the entire continent, with only these small islands (and their lucrative fishing rights) as its only remaining toehold.

St. Pierre and Miquelon boomed during prohibition, when they acted as a depot for hooch being smuggled into America in the holds of ships, but quickly sank into a depression when the taps were turned back on in the U.S. in 1933.

Funnily enough, the islands also played a minor role in World War II. When France fell to the Nazis, they briefly became the territory of the collaborationist Vichy regime in France, before being liberated by a small flotilla operating in the name of the Free French in 1941 (thankfully, no shots were fired). What's not so well known is that the Canadian PM, Mackenzie King, also had the idea of storming the beaches of St. Pierre and Miquelon, afraid, as he was, that the islands were directing the U-boats that were threatening allied merchant ships on the Grand Banks.

Since the depletion of the cod fishery in the late 1980s, the French government has been trying to diversify the little colony's economy, but it's a tough go. Windswept and barren, with long, cold winters and short, windy summers, any large-scale agriculture on the islands is a non-starter. Tourism is growing, and there is hope for some offshore oil development, but today most residents work in the service sector, and the territory is reliant on a grant from France to stay afloat.

Still, if a trip to Europe isn't in the budget this year, I'm told it's the next best thing. If you go, don't forget to send me a postcard.

For the CIA World Factbook entry on St. Pierre and Miquelon, click here.

For the official site, click here.

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