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Islands of France

While mainland France is located within Europe, its influence spreads much further.

  Long Read Special

During Napoleon lll's rule in the mid to late 1800's, France colonised several overseas territories, and along with Britain restoring ownership of some territories to France, Napoleon over doubled the size of his empire. 

Contents

  1. Overseas Regions
  2. Overseas Collectives
  3. Mainland France

Introduction

By 1920 the French colonial empire was the sixth largest in the world, after that of the British, Mongal, Russian, Spanish and Qing, with an area of 11,500,000km² and covering nearly 8% of the globe. But its global power was to diminish following the second world war when anti-colonial movements started to challenge the French authority.

Relics of the empire remain peppered across the globe, rebranded as Overseas Territories & Departments which are governed by French law but retain their own autonomy.

The French overseas territories are divided into three distinct groups; Overseas Regions, Overseas Collectives and Special Status. There are also hundreds of islands off the coast of mainland France, Corsica springs to mind but we're also talking about smaller, tidal islands like Mont St Michel.

Overseas Regions

Of the 18 French regions, five are counted as overseas and are treated as integral to the French culture and society. Like mainland France they benefit from membership of the European Union.


Guadeloupe

Located in the southern Caribbean sea and consisting of six inhabited islands, Guadeloupe was first populated by the indigenous people of the Americas over 5,000 years ago. It wasn't until the mid 17th century that the French took possession of the islands.

It was made an Overseas Region in 1946. 

Terre-de-Haut Island panoramic. Photo by Patrice78500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Terre-de-Haut Island panoramic. Photo by Patrice78500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The islands, often thought of as an undiscovered getaway for French mainlanders, are best known for their serene volcanic sandy beaches, beautifully blue waters, tropical weather, authentic Creolean atmosphere and rum, Guadeloupe's national tipple of choice


French Guiana

Bordering Brazil and Suriname, French Guiana is the largest of the outermost regions of the European Union. It boasts an impressive feature (one that is sure to pop up in a general knowledge quiz); it is home to the EU's largest national park, the Guiana Amazonian Park which covers over 40% of the territory. The region is also almost exclusively covered by rainforest. 

Beach of Bourda, Cayenne
Beach of Bourda, Cayenne

Martinique

Sitting directly north of St Lucia in the Less Antilles of the West Indies, Martinique was home to artist Paul Gauguin for some years and thus became the inspiration for many of his tropical landscape paintings and portraits of native women. 

Bord de Mer II, 1887, Private collection, Paris. Photo distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH
Bord de Mer II, 1887, Private collection, Paris. Photo distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH

Réunion

The colourful island of Réunion, situated east of Madagascar and southwest of Mauritius, is perhaps one of the better known Overseas Regions. About 40% of the island is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site which preserves its exotic flora and fauna.

Like Guadeloupe, rum is big business and there are several distilleries across the island, many open for tours - you can even make your own blends using exotic herbs and spices like tamarind, coffee and ginger. 

Le cirque Cilaos au coeur de l'île de La Réunion. Photo by Alexandre Péribé - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Le cirque Cilaos au coeur de l'île de La Réunion. Photo by Alexandre Péribé - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The island is largely self-sufficient and many cultural practices still exist. Along with the rum distilleries, geraniums are distilled into essential oils for use in perfumes and herbal remedies, coffee is hand ground and roasted and the markets are alive with local artisans selling their wares.


Mayotte

Sandwiched between South Africa and Madagascar in the north of the Mozambique Channel lies the forested island of Mayotte. Although listed as one of the most disadvantaged departments of France, it is significantly better off than many islands in the channel with native crops such as bananas, mangoes and coconuts contributing towards the economy. 

The waters surrounding Mayotte are protected by a National Marine Park.

Agricultural landscape of Mayotte. Photo by Frédéric Ducarme - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Agricultural landscape of Mayotte. Photo by Frédéric Ducarme - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Overseas Collectives

Many of the remaining overseas territories are known as Overseas Collectives. Collectively, these islands don't form part of France like Overseas Regions do, they are semi-autonomous, not members of the EU (except for Saint Martin) and don't use the Euro currency.


French Polynesia

Dispersed over an expanse of more than 2,000km, French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean. The islands are divided into six archipelagos:

  • The Marquesas Islands 
  • The Society Islands - home to the major tourist destination of Bora Bora and the capital of Papeete, located on the island of Tahiti.
  • The Tuamotu Archipelago - made up of nearly 80 islands and forming the largest chain of atolls in the world.
  • The Gambier Islands
  • The Austral Islands
  • The Bass Islands

The collective is known mainly for the international tourist destination of Bora Bora, famous for its luxury aqua-centric resorts, crystal clear waters, soaring volcanoes and celebrity holidaymakers.

    Bora Bora, Leeward Islands by Samuel Etienne - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
    Bora Bora, Leeward Islands by Samuel Etienne - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Wallis and Futuna

    Though classed as both French and Polynesian, Wallis and Futuna are a distinctly separate entity. The collective is made up of three volcanic islands and a handful of small islets.

    Aerial photograph of Wallis island By Anna Vinet - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
    Aerial photograph of Wallis island By Anna Vinet - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

    Saint Martin - North

    Situated in the West Indies with a population of over 35,000, the Collectivity of Saint Martin is split in two; the north owned by the French and South by the Dutch - a division that dates back to the 17th century. 

    Fun fact: The division forms France's only border with the Netherlands.

    Saint Barthélemy

    Known as Ouanalao by its indigenous people, Saint Barthélemy lies 22 miles southeast of Saint Martin and is a popular tourist destination during the Christmas and New Year period, especially among celebrities. 

    After briefly being taken over by the British, the island was gifted to Sweden in return for trading rights. Through the late 17th and early 18th century it was owned by the Swedes, it fell into French hands in 1878.  

    The island hosts the Saint Barthélemy Music Festival, a major international festival held annually which showcases calypso, méringue, soca, zouk and reggae music.

    Gustavia Harbour courtesy of GoDifferent LLC/02Cruise.com, CC BY-SA 3.0
    Gustavia Harbour courtesy of GoDifferent LLC/02Cruise.com, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Saint Pierre and Miquelon

    Part of the former New France, an area of North America colonised by the French in the 16th century, the Overseas Collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon is located close to the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador and 2,370 miles from mainland France.

    New Caledonia - Special Collective Status

    New Caledonia obtained a special status in 1999 after the Nouméa Accord of 1998 - an agreement between the French Republic and the Island to give back political power while still providing military assistance and controlling foreign policy, immigrations and policing. In a vote of independence in 2018, residents of New Caledonia chose to remain part of France.

    The main island of Grande-Terre is double that of the island of Corsica in the Med Sea, making it the largest French island in terms of area and fourth largest in terms of population after Réunion, Martinique and Corsica.

    Basketry and wood carving are both important cultural crafts and are still widely practiced by the tribal communities. The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 1998, celebrates the indigenous culture of New Caledonia.

    Traditional Kanak houses in New Caledonia
    Traditional Kanak houses in New Caledonia

    Mainland France

    Metropolitan France also has many of its own islands often sitting just a few hundred metres from its coastline. There are over 150 islands, islets, archipelagos and tidal islands off France's coast including many off the rocky Normandy and Brittany shorelines, the Bay of Biscay on the exposed western coast and to the south in the Mediterranean sea. We've put together some of our favourites.


    Mont-Saint-Michel (tidal)

    Visited by over 3 million people each year, the UNESCO-listed Mont-Saint-Michel is perhaps one of France's most recognisable landmarks. 

    Connected to the mainland via a bridge, the rocky outcrop was strategically constructed to be easily accessible at low tide from the mainland but well-placed to attack incoming enemies approaching by boat. 

    Fun fact: The town of Mont-Saint-Michel is constructed in a feudal layout; at its base are the houses of fisherman and farmers, above that are food stores and houses then up another level are the great halls then, at the top, the abbey.

    You can visit Mont-Saint-Michel on our Véloscenie: Alençon to Mont-Saint-Michel tour.

      Mont-Saint-Michel at sunset
      Mont-Saint-Michel at sunset

      Chausey Islands (archipelago)

      The Chausey Islands are a group of small islands and islets off the coast of Normandy and close to the Channel Islands. The islands were subject to disputes between the French and British over who the islands belonged to for many years until 1499 when they were abandoned and handed to the French. But the bitter dispute didn't end there. A fortress was built in 1559 by the French, 185 years later the British destroyed it and when another fort was built in its place, the Brits destroyed that too!

      The biggest of the islands, Grand Île, is home to a population of just 30, many of them fisherman but this figure rises during the summer months as tourists flock. 

      Fun fact: Stone from the islands was used to construct Mont-Saint-Michel.

      Île-de-Bréhat

      Sitting just a few hundred metres off the coast of northern Brittany near the port town of Paimpol are the idyllic islands of Île-de-Bréhat. Famous for its pink granite shorelines, almost Mediterranean climate and pretty Breton houses, it is definitely worth a visit.

      Morbihan Islands 

      This group of islands consists of four inhabited islands off the southern coast of Brittany:

      • Belle Île - the biggest in land area and in population. Its shorelines are characterised as being rocky with sharp falls on the southwest side and much gentler and 'beachy' on the northeast side. The island receives less rain and a warmer climate than mainland Morbihan. It hosts the Lyrique en Mer Festival each year which is the largest opera festival in western France.
      • Groix - much like its bigger sister, Groix's shorelines are gentle to the south and rougher to the north. It is also home to Europe's only convex beach.
      • Houat & dic - both smaller islands, similar in size.
      Groix harbour. Image credit: Brittany Tourism
      Groix harbour. Image credit: Brittany Tourism

      Corsica

      The largest of the French mainland islands (and the forth largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus), Corsica is a region of metropolitan France although it has obtained a special status as territorial collectivity and therefore benefits from a greater degree of autonomy than other French regions. By distance it is closer to Italy than to France.

      Historically it was ruled by the Republic of Genoa and then by the Italians which has shaped not only its deeply ingrained culture but its language. Corsican is a recognised language of France, it is most similar to the native language of Tuscany, Italy. 

      Because of its location it benefits from a warm mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters although there can be snow in the hills. 

      Fun fact: Corsica has the perfect climate for producing wine but very few bottles are sold in mainland France. Instead, most of it is kept on the island and drunk by locals.

      Saint-Nicolas church in Feliceto By Pierre Bona - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
      Saint-Nicolas church in Feliceto By Pierre Bona - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

      Île-de-Ré

      Pronounced 'ray', Île-de-Ré is a popular island off the west coast of France near La Rochelle. Although now connected permanently via a road bridge it is often seen by the French as a home-from-home getaway and is frequented by many celebrities including Charles Aznavour, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Johnny Depp, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom.

      It is known for its warm climate, salt plains and fresh oysters. 

      Îles d'Hyères (archipelago)

      Îles d'Hyères is a group of islands in the Mediterranean sometimes referred to as the Golden Islands. There are four main islands spread over several kilometres to the south and southeast of the town of Hyères.

      • Porquerolles – the largest of the islands and considered an extension of the Giens peninsula.
      • Port-Cros – a mostly mountainous island, part of Port-Cros National Park.
      • Île du Bagaud – also part of the Port-Cros National Park.
      • Île du Levant – although mostly used by the military, it is known for its long-established nudist colony centered on the privately owned village of Héliopolis.

      Porquerolles island looking out to the Med sea
      Porquerolles island looking out to the Med sea

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