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Beyond Europe: Overseas France

When speaking of France, most people think of metropolitan France. However, there’s more to the French Republic: it also includes Overseas Departments and Regions (DOM-ROMs), Overseas Collectivities (COMs), New Caledonia, and other territories with special status. So, let’s take a closer look.

At a Glance

  • The vast majority of the French population lives in metropolitan France.
  • France has 13 overseas territories with varying degrees of autonomy.
  • The five Overseas Departments and Regions (DOM-ROMs) have the same level of power and autonomy as metropolitan France’s 96 departments.
  • Overseas Collectivities (COMs) enjoy a greater autonomy than the five DOM-ROMS, and New Caledonia has a referendum on its possible independence due in 2018.

France Does Not Equal Metropolitan France

Metropolitan France (France métropolitaine or la Métropole) — sometimes also referred to as European France — describes mainland France on the European continent, the island of Corsica, as well as some smaller islands in the English Channel, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean. It shares borders with Andorra and Spain in the south, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland in the east, as well as Italy and Monaco in the southeast. The country itself is divided into 13 administrative regions; these are further split into 96 departments, two of which are located on Corsica.

Discovering Overseas France

Prior to a 2003 constitutional reform, overseas France was often referred to as the DOM-TOMs: départments et territoires d’outre-mer. While this term is still used regularly, a further distinction was made following the reform: the so-called collectivities (COMs) were introduced. Altogether, overseas France has a population of roughly 2.2 million people compared to metropolitan France’s 64.9 million.

Far Away from the Mainland: The DOM-ROMs

Article 73 of the French Constitution regulates the status of the so-called Overseas Departments and Regions (départements et régions d'outre-mer), DOM-ROMs or DROMs for short. These overseas departments have the same level of power and autonomy as the 96 administrative departments of metropolitan France. They are represented in the French Senate, the National Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and even the European Parliament. Regional councils are responsible for the local administration, and the same laws as in mainland France apply, with only some limited adjustments.

At the time of writing (October 2017), France had five Overseas Departments and Regions:

  • La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean
  • Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean
  • French Guiana in South America

French Guiana is the only DOM-ROM that is not an island or group of islands. The sparsely-inhabited department borders Suriname to the west and Brazil to the south and east. Mayotte only joined the ranks of DOM-ROMs in 2011 after a successful referendum to change its former collectivité status.

Enjoying a Greater Autonomy: The COMs

The status of the so-called Overseas Collectivities or Communities (collectivités d'outre-mer), or COMs, is set down in article 74 of the constitution.

There are currently five Overseas Collectivities (as of October 2017):

  • Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin in the Caribbean
  • French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna in the South Pacific
  • Saint Pierre and Miquelon in the North Atlantic

Similar to the DOM-ROMs, they are also represented in the French National Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Senate. However, only Saint Martin is part of the European Union, and only the Atlantic COMs use the euro as their currency. In French Polynesia, as well as in Wallis and Futuna, the currency is the CFP franc (currency code XPF), with a fixed exchange rate of 1,000 XPF = 8.38 EUR.

Unlike in the DOM-ROMs, organic laws determine which regulations of metropolitan France apply in each COM and which competences lie with the respective collectivité. Therefore, their administrations can differ. In Wallis and Futuna, for example, traditional chieftainship of the three kingdoms is also recognized by France and plays an important role in local government: the three kings make up half of the policy-making territorial council, and justice for non-criminal cases is administered according to customary law.

Deciding on Independence: New Caledonia

New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie) in the Pacific Ocean is the odd one out when it comes to France’s overseas regions. Its legal status can be described as a collectivité sui generis: it is not quite a sovereign nation — France controls foreign policy, security, defense, immigration, and currency — but based on the Nouméa Accord of 1998, it enjoys a greater autonomy than the COMs.

The same agreement also stipulates that New Caledonia will hold an independence referendum no later than November 2018. While current polls suggest a slight majority in favor of staying with France, there’s not yet been a final decision on who will even be allowed to vote in the referendum. The indigenous population, the Kanaks, makes up a minority in the territory with roughly 40%.

Isolated and Uninhabited in the South

Last but not least, France also controls two minor territories: Clipperton Island in the Pacific Ocean and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories (TAAF: Terres australes et antarctiques françaises) — a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean and territorial claims in Antarctica. Both are directly managed by the French government. While Clipperton Island is uninhabited, there are some non-permanent populations found in the TAAFs, consisting of scientists, soldiers, and supporting staff.


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