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Overseas France

Published on November 29, 2007


Thanks to her overseas departments and territories, France extends far beyond the boundaries of Europe and into the four corners of the earth. Outside the borders of metropolitan France, she has coasts washed by the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and land borders from the icy wastes of Antarctica to the great Amazonian rainforest.

Clichés apart, the uniqueness of France’s overseas departments and territories lies in their staggering variety. They encompass a wealth not just of natural contrasts in the form of differing climates, landscapes, flora and fauna, but of human contrasts too - different cultures and identities, all of which add to the rich mosaic which is France, a republic of the people, open to the world and holding out a hand of friendship.

The abolition of slavery, introduction of universal suffrage, steady progress towards social equality: these are all key steps which have shaped the lives of people in overseas France for more than a century and a half. From the erstwhile French "possessions" to the present-day departments (DOM), territories (TOM) and territorial collectivities (an intermediate status between DOM and TOM), the history of the Republic’s links with overseas France is one of continuing change.

Overseas France is unquestionably the source of the Republic’s diversity. Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and Réunion are the four French overseas departments (DOM). As such they have equal rights with and the same legislative identity as any other department in metropolitan France, plus a certain amount of freedom which takes account of their specific circumstances. The French Constitution has also opened up the way towards constitutional legislation à la carte, as witness the processes of change currently being followed by, for example, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Mayotte.

In allowing the overseas departments and territories to choose their own individual roads to development, the French Republic is responding to the aspiration of her overseas populations to be responsible for themselves, giving them the means not just to play a part in their own destiny but actively to shape it.

Indian Ocean


The island of Réunion is part of the Mascarene Archipelago. Its tropical forest and volcanic mountains (rising to 3,069 metres) make it a colourful island.

In 1638 the "Saint-Alexis", bound for the Indies, claimed this desert island for King Louis XIII. Réunion became a department of France in 1946. It has an area of 2,512 square km and a population of 793,000 who are a remarkable mix of African, Asian, Malagasy and European stock. Réunion has the largest population of all the French overseas departments.

The quality of the island’s environment is outstanding and it has a network of biological reserves covering 7,000 hectares. The economy of Réunion is centred on three sectors: agriculture (sugar cane, rum, plant essences), fishing (4th largest export after agricultural produce) and tourism.

Réunion is also a centre of scientific research. It is home to the Piton de la Fournaise volcano observatory and the tropical cyclone centre at Saint-Denis, which is the monitoring station for the whole of the Indian Ocean.


Mayotte is the most southern of the four islands of the Comoro Archipelago, with an area of 374 square km and a population of 208,000. It comprises two main islands and thirty or so islets.

Known as the "perfume island", Mayotte is also famous for its lagoon, one the most beautiful in the world (1,100 square km).

In 1841 the Sultan of Mayotte ceded the island to France and it became part of France’s colonial empire. In 1946 the Comoro Archipelago became an overseas territory. In the 1974 referendum three of the islands opted for independence, whilst Mayotte chose to remain French. This loyalty of the population of Mayotte to the Republic has grown ever stronger and since 1998 Mayotte has been engaged in a process of change which will ultimately give it the status of a department.

Mayotte’s economy is largely agricultural. The island exports three main agricultural products: ylang-ylang (more than three quarters is exported for use in the perfume industry), vanilla and cinnamon.

The island is well away from established tourist routes, and visitors can still enjoy the full beauty of its unspoiled natural environment and culture.

Atlantic Ocean


With an area of 1,100 square km Martinique is the smallest of the overseas departments. It lies in the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. It is volcanic in origin, offering a varied landscape dominated by the volcano of Mount Pelée (1,397 metres), whose eruption in 1902 destroyed the then capital of St Pierre. Its population of 401,000 reflects a history of inter-marrying: black Africans, descendants of Indian immigrants, Syrians, Chinese. The European population is made up of Békés (white Creoles) - descendants of the first colonists - and people from metropolitan France.

The first inhabitants of the island were Arawak Indians. The island became a colony of the Kingdom of France in 1674. Slavery was abolished by decree of 27 April 1848 at the initiative of Victor Schoelcher. Martinique has been an overseas department since 1946.

The tertiary sector accounts for 75% of all jobs. Agriculture is the chief source of the island’s export earnings. Bananas are the main crop and principal economic resource, accounting for 49.5% of final agricultural output and generating nearly 40% of export earnings.

Tourism is developing fast. It employs over 11,000 people and contributes more than 7% to commercial GDP.


This archipelago in the Lesser Antilles, with a total area of 1,704 square km, is made up of six islands: Guadeloupe proper comprising Basse-Terre, dominated by the volcano of La Soufrière (1,484 metres), and Grande-Terre, with the adjacent islands of La Désirade, Îles des Saintes, Marie-Galante and, further to the north, St Barthélemy and the French part of St Martin. Guadeloupe proper is the largest island in the French West Indies with an area of 1,438 square km and a population of 453,000.

The original inhabitants were Arawak Indians. The island became a colony of the Kingdom of France in 1674. The following century saw the development of an economy based on sugar and slavery; slavery was abolished by decree of 27 April 1848 at the initiative of Victor Schoelcher. Guadeloupe has been an overseas department since 1946.

The economy is based on agriculture (bananas are still the principal money crop), tourism and services.

Tourism, as the department’s main economic activity, is virtually the only source of income for St Martin and St Barthélemy.

French Guiana

French Guiana, with an area of 90,000 square km, lies in the north-eastern part of South America between Surinam and Brazil. Equatorial rainforest covers nine tenths of the territory. It is the biggest and most densely forested French department. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, France suggested that it be made a center of excellence for the protection of tropical rainforests and ecodevelopment.

Guiana has 202,000 inhabitants, over 50,000 of whom live in Cayenne, and a population density of 2 inhabitants per square km. The people reflect a multiplicity of racial origins, being mainly: Creoles (about 40%), Amerindians, persons from metropolitan France and H’mongs.

The first inhabitants of Guiana were Tupi Guarani Indians. In 1852 Napoleon III established convict settlements in Guiana. The French Government ended the banishment of convicts in 1938. Since the Act of 19 March 1946 Guiana has been a French department.

The space technology era began in Guiana in 1964 with the opening of the Guiana Space Centre, which had, and continues to have a major impact on the department’s economy.

Guiana is a land of exuberance, adventure and discovery par excellence, and green tourism is a prime route for its further development.

St Pierre and Miquelon

The archipelago of St Pierre and Miquelon lies in the north-west Atlantic, 25 km off the coast of Canada. It has two islands, a population of 6,125 and a total area of 242 square km.

It was claimed for the French crown in 1535 by Jacques Cartier. The first settlers were for the most part French fishermen from Brittany, Normandy and the Basque country. It became a permanent part of France in 1816. St Pierre and Miquelon became a territorial collectivity in 1985.

Fishing is the archipelago’s main income earner. Recent test drilling for oil in its waters may herald a new important economic activity for St Pierre and Miquelon.

The proximity of St Pierre and Miquelon to Canada is a major bonus to local tourism which publicizes the islands’ image as "France in North America".

Pacific Ocean

New Caledonia

New Caledonia is part of the group of islands which make up Melanesia and covers 18,575 square km. The archipelago comprises Grande Terre (main island), twice the size of Corsica, plus the four islands of Loyalty, the Bélep Archipelago, the Isle of Pines and a few remote islets.

The landscape of New Caledonia is rich and varied. The archipelago has 230,800 inhabitants and two main communities: Melanesians (over 44%) and Europeans (more than 34%).

The Melanesians are the original inhabitants of New Caledonia. The first European to set foot there was Captain James Cook, in 1774. It became a French possession in 1853.

The 1980s were marked by the rise of the Kanak independence movement. The agreements signed in 1988 took the heat out of the climate of political instability and triggered a new economic equilibrium. Since 1998 New Caledonia has been pursuing an original process of institutional development. In 2014, voters who have lived in the archipelago for at least 20 years will be asked to vote on the question of full independence.

New Caledonia has considerable natural resources. It is the third-largest world producer of nickel and has other minerals too: chrome, cobalt, iron, copper, lead, zinc and jasper.

Agriculture, mainly cattle-breeding, coffee and copra, employs 28% of the population. Fishery products, of which 80% are tuna, are exported to Japan. Since 1996 Pacific prawns have been the second largest export.

Tourism flourishes in New Caledonia, and its natural riches have earned it the nickname of "the island closest to paradise".

French Polynesia

With a land area of 4,200 square km, French Polynesia consists of five archipelagos of 118 volcanic or coral islands, covering a total area of 2,500,000 square km: the Society, Marquesas, Austral and Tuamotu-Gambier islands.

43% of the inhabitants of French Polynesia (245,500) are aged under 20. The population is made up of nearly 83% Polynesians, 12% Europeans and 4.7% Asians. The first Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century. Historically, the conquest of the Pacific was a struggle for influence between England and France, until the Polynesian Queen Pomaré IV asked for the islands to be made a protectorate of France. Subsequently, all the archipelagos were brought under the jurisdiction of the French Republic. In 1946 French Polynesia became an overseas territory, with an autonomous status since 1996.

The two traditional activities are fishing and copra cultivation. Other areas of the economy are commerce, craft industries, and more recently tourism, which now accounts for nearly 20% of GDP, and the black pearl industry which in nominal terms is the territory’s most significant export sector.

Following the halting of French nuclear tests at the Pacific testing centre in April 1992, the State undertook to help with the economic and social development of French Polynesia for a period of 10 years.

Wallis and Futuna

This archipelago comprises the three volcanic islands of Wallis, Futuna and Alofi and is part of Polynesian Oceania. The island of Wallis (96 square km), 200 km to the north-east of Futuna was named after Captain Samuel Wallis who found it in 1767. Futuna (64 square km) and the neighbouring islet of Alofi (51 square km) were discovered in 1616 by Dutch explorers. Of the 14,166 people who inhabit this territory, 34% live on Futuna. A European presence was not established until the nineteenth century, with the foundation of Catholic missions and conclusion of the first treaties between France and the three kingdoms, which gave them protectorate status. In 1959 a large majority of the population (93.5%) voted in a referendum to become an overseas territory.

The economy of this territory has remained highly traditional and largely dependent on a barter system. Most production is consumed locally and trade is minimal. The main activities are agriculture, pig-breeding, fishing and craft industries. There has been little development of tourism.

French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF - Terres australes et antarctiques françaises)

These islands were discovered by the explorers Crozet and Kerguelen in 1772 and became a French territory in 1955. The TAAF consist of the islands of St Paul (7 square km) and Amsterdam (54 square km), the Crozet Islands (115 square km) and Kerguelen Islands (7,215 square km) and Terre Adélie (432,000 square km).

They lie in the southern zone of the Indian Ocean and are part of the continent of Antarctica. The only people living in this remote and inhospitable area are members of the scientific and technical teams based at the various permanent stations.

Various scientific programmes are conducted under the aegis of the French Institute for Polar Research and Technology from stations in the Kerguelen islands and Terre Adélie. Research work, of world-wide importance, is being carried out, inter alia, on: the atmosphere, meteorology, pollution, the environment, the Earth’s interior and surface, biology and oceanography. Much of it is the subject of international scientific cooperation.

The economy is based on fishing (seaweed, krill, salmon). The Southern Lands add an extra 1,750,000 km to France’s coastline./.
Source : Images de la France (SIG)

For further information

Ministry for Overseas Departements and Territories
St-Pierre-et-Miquelon’s office of tourism