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North of the equator, the people of Saint Pierre et Miquelon, an island group located off the Newfoundland coast, aren't doing nearly as well as their Falklands counterparts, with an economy that has been decidedly unproductive since the collapse of the cod fisheries. Some Saint-Pierrais want France to renegotiate seabed and fisheries rights with Canada.

Xavier Bowring points to the row of rusting, 19th-century cannons that overlook the harbour of this tiny French territory and jokes: "We'll use these to defend ourselves from an attack by Canada."

Then he says, "We don't want a war with Canada. We only want discussions, so we can have a piece of the resource -- a piece of the pie."

Bowring is an outspoken member of a citizens group on St-Pierre-Miquelon -- the French archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland -- that since February has galvanized many of the 6,000 residents here behind a passionate campaign for a new economic arrangement with Canada.

[. . .]

For most of the 20th century the islanders prospered off the East Coast cod fishery, not as fishermen but as merchants who processed fish and who served the foreign fishing fleet that used St-Pierre as a refuelling and resupply base.

"The big money was made here by merchants selling food, fuel, and lodging to Spanish, Korean and Japanese boats," said Gilles Borotra, a local businessman who co-owns one of the islands' last remaining fish plants.

"We had 25 bars, 14 nightclubs, and the town was filled with foreign fishing crews. There was lots of traffic in the streets. Now there are only three bars and one nightclub and almost all the hotels are closed. Everybody's in financial turmoil."

The collapse of the cod fishery in 1992, and Canada's decision to ban the foreign fleet from inside its 200 mile limit, put an end to St-Pierre-Miquelon's prosperity.

Only the occasional fishing trawler now comes to St-Pierre, and the territory relies increasingly on handouts from Paris, which the town's Mayor Karine Claireaux says amount to as much $166 million every year.

Paris not only sends money but also civil servants -- police, customs officers, technocrats -- to help run the local government and provide services. More than a third of the population are now expatriate bureaucrats from France, who come on two-or-three year assignments and then return home. The big money here now is not in business, but in a well-paid government job.

[. . .]

[D]reams of a new future fuelled by petroleum wealth are hampered by the fact that St-Pierre-Miquelon's offshore rights are confined to a small sliver of seabed -- 2.5 miles wide and 200 long ---- known derisively here as "the baguette."

Awarded two decades ago by a U.N. commission, France has a looming legal deadline of May 13 to appeal the boundaries of "the baguette."

Islanders want either an enlarged French economic zone in which to exploit petroleum resources, or at least the right to share with Canada revenues from undersea natural gas fields believed to lie across French-Canadian offshore boundaries.


Saint Pierre et Miquelon, as the islanders note, isn't such a large constituency-- fewer people than could fit in a soccer stadium--as to be unignorable by French politicians, and that change is probably unlikely. Still, there's hope.
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Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] jrittenhouse for bringing my attention to Bill Law's BBC article "French islands bid for oil-rich sea", originally aired on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents. Since the collapse of the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks in 1992, the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon have been hammered at least as badly as Newfoundland ever was, possibly worse because of the restricted share of the Grand Banks that the islands received.

Lying just off the south-eastern coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, St Pierre and Miquelon are tiny islands that represent a past most people have forgotten and a present with a very uncertain future.

The original French settlers were Basques, Bretons and Normans who arrived here in the 1600s. For centuries they fished the Grand Banks where the supply of cod was seemingly inexhaustible.

All that came to an abrupt end in 1992, when the Canadian Government, appalled at the destruction of cod stocks by foreign trawlers, banned all cod fishing.

That same year - a year of infamy as far as the islanders are concerned - the Canadians hammered home their intention to protect and exploit the coastal waters.

At an international tribunal in New York, sitting across the table from a French delegation, they successfully laid claim to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone.

St Pierre and Miquelon were left with their own 200 mile zone, but bizarrely it is just 10 miles wide, a long thin finger of ocean running due south of the islands and leading nowhere.

[. . .]

Bruno Detcheverry runs a fish processing plant that used to employ 350 people. Now he has just 70 part-time workers.

He says that what happened in 1992 was "a tragedy, like a guillotine coming down".

"Before there was work for many, and many fishing vessels. After, there was no work. The harbour is finished and the economy is finished."

Later this spring, a fourth offshore well will go into production in Canadian controlled waters.

The once have-not province of Newfoundland has in the past few years begun to emerge from poverty into a potential that is rich in oil and gas.


The roughly sixty-five hundred islanders, it seems, want to avoid indefinite subsistence on subsidies provided by the French government by laying claims to territories on the Grand Banks that might contain reserves and oil and natural gas. As Law notes, the marine territories that the islanders want to claim do not connect to the maritime boundaries of St. Pierre et Miquelon at all, lying at a remove several hundred kilometres to the south across Canadian territory. If St. Pierre et Miquelon was a microstate, this popular demand might be raised by the islanders in international fora, no matter how legally dubious their claim was. Unfortunately for them, though the islands' status as a collectivité d'outre-mer of France assures them of French citizenship and French aid, it also requires the islanders to submit to the foreign-policy plans of Paris. After recovering from their nadir with Gaullist support of Québécois separatism, Franco-Canadian relations are now warm enough that an unlikely French territorial claim is unlikely to be made.

This is unfortunate for the islanders but not unprecedent, since life for the islanders was historically difficult. The whole history of St. Pierre et Miquelon in the first half of the 20th century can read almost like one of unmitigated catastrophe, of a boom-and-bust economy that hit bust more often than not and a population that just couldn't manage.

The dawn of a new century cast darkness over Saint Pierre’s once shining economy. Newfoundland’s legislature passed a "Bait Bill" barring export of live bait to the islands. France abandoned its rights to establish seasonal fishing camps on the "French shore" in 1904. The dories gave way to large trawlers. The population of the colony plummeted 30% in the three years beginning with 1904. The number of fishing boats dropped from 200 in 1902 to just 70 in 1907. The colony’s economic woes continued through the First World War in which a fifth of the islands’ five hundred man contingent perished.

Saint Pierre made a dramatic recovery following the war. The United States Congress passed the Volstead Act barring the manufacture, sale or importation of alcohol in 1920 but the French government maintained that export of alcohol from St. Pierre was perfectly legal since no crime occurred until ships carrying it entered American waters. France went a step further in 1922. President Millerand signed a decree granting Saint Pierre and Miquelon preferred status in the colonial liquor trade. Rum Runners built several large warehouses and anchored a fleet of booze trawlers in Saint Pierre. Taxes on "legal" alcohol exports now underwrote most of the colony’s budget. The islands’ number one taxpayer, Al Capone paid a visit to his Saint Pierre operation in 1927.

Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 and shortly thereafter Prohibition ended. Saint Pierre was no longer the preferred distribution center for whisky, liqueurs and aperitifs entering the United States. The colony’s happy days were gone again. Saint Pierre was thrust into the misery of the Great Depression. The suddenly reduced circumstances of the population spawned demonstrations and political turmoil. Governor Barrillot writing the Minister for Colonies in 1934 described the situation of the colony as, "becoming impossible" but Paris refused further subsidies. To keep order, the Government sent a corvette along with an Inspector General of Colonies who recommended "a reduction in the standard of living".

The Popular Front government elected in 1936 instituted a "New Deal" for metropolitan France but its policies did little to alleviate the sufferings of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The islands’ governor was replaced by a less costly administrator. Municipal government was abolished and responsibility for the budget transferred from the resident administrator to bureaucrats in the Ministry for Colonies. Separation of Church and State laws instituted in France in 1905 were now made applicable to the colony but their implementation was delayed by the administrator under pressure from the local clergy. The Cures continued to be paid a government salary and housing subsidy. Economic misery continued unabated. The islands’ few trees disappeared for few Saint Pierrais could afford the Nova Scotia coal formerly used for heating. Many families were forced to immigrate to Canada.


The insensitivity of the French government in the 1930s to the islanders' poverty is remarkable, but the unnamed functionaries were correct in noting that, with the islands' population and economic resources, absent external support the islands just couldn't support a high standard of living for the entire population. St. Pierre et Miquelon is, as is often noted, the last part of New France remaining French. The islands rank almost as an anachronism; almost, because even if they were part of Canada they'd share in the general economic depression of coastal eastern Atlantic Canada. One of the islanders interviewed by Lee is wrong to argue that the islands' French connection is doomed. If anything, it might save them, thanks to the fact of the islands' Frenchness being used by tourism agencies. Tourism, alas, just isn't enough to keep the islanders as well-off as they want. Emigration is inevitable.
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