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2011: Year of France’s Overseas Territories

The following is a guest post by Nicole Atwill, Senior Foreign Law Specialist at the Law Library of Congress.

In February 2011, the French government launched the Year of Overseas Territories (Année des outre-mer) with a conference on the future of coral reefs.  The Year of Overseas Territories highlights the historic place and contemporary role of France’s twelve overseas territories.  Many events will showcase these distant lands around major themes including culture, institutions, education, sustainable development, economy, and tourism.  On February 2, the columns of the French National Assembly building were illuminated in the colors of these territories to “tell the women and men of these territories how much they contribute to making France a great nation,” stated Marie-Luce Penchard, the current minister for overseas territories.

I would like to take you on a trip to some of these territories to visit their beautiful beaches or rainforests.  Alas, as duty calls, I will instead take the opportunity to give you a legal overview that may proved useful in your research.

A constitutional reform of March 28, 2003, redefined the status of French overseas territories and divided them into two administrative categories, départements and collectivités, as provided by Articles 73 and 74 of the 1958 Constitution.  As a general rule, French law and regulations apply in overseas départements as in the mainland.  However, some laws and regulations may be adapted to their specific situation as provided by Article 73 of the Constitution.  By contrast, collectivités are governed by autonomy statutes, allowing them to pass their own laws, except in areas such as foreign affairs, defense, courts, security, and currency, which remain the preserve of the French state.

Mainland France is presently divided into ninety-six départements.  There are five additional overseas départements, four of them created in 1946.  These include Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, and Réunion.  In March 2011, Mayotte became the fifth département after ninety-five percent of its inhabitants voted in favor of becoming a French département in a March 2009 referendum.

There are five collectivités:  French Polynesia, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna, Saint Martin, and Saint Barthélemy.

Two additional territories remain outside this classification:  New Caledonia and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories.  As a result of the 1998 Nouméa Accords, the New Caledonian population is scheduled to vote on independence in a referendum to be held between 2014 and 2019.  The Accords set forth a gradual transfer of powers to the local assembly.  A major dispute is presently taking place between pro-French and pro-independence parties over flying two flags, the French flag and the Kanak flag, which belongs to the indigenous populations of New Caledonia.  The dispute has recently resulted in the collapse of the coalition government.

The French Southern and Antarctic Territories do not have a permanent population and are managed directly by the French state.

Each territory is represented in the French National Assembly and the French Senate (except for the French Southern and Antarctic Territories).  In addition, as France is a member state of the European Union (EU), the French overseas territories – as well as those of other member states – have special relationships with the EU as determined by EU treaties, directives, or any other applicable regulation.  The French overseas départements are part of the EU by virtue of being part of France, while the collectivités are not directly subject to EU law but have negotiated special relationships that may vary significantly.  The status of Saint Barthélemy, for example, was recently amended.

You can find more information about each territory, including government portals, by going to the welcome page of the French-language website of the Ministry of Overseas Territories and clicking on the name of the territory on the left.  The portals are listed under “Adresses utiles.”  In addition, the Law Library of Congress has in its collection numerous books, local regulations, and official gazettes for several of these territories.

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