Bienvenue a France!
Many years ago, when the GC used to talk of ‘his islands’ where he was born and to which he vehemently swore he would never return (a total dump, full of degenerates and the hopeless, with a terrible climate that no human could withstand) he once told me that he would never forgive Napoleon for giving away the French territories in North America. If you know the GC, you know that he is a man of strong personal views about all those he meets and that he has an extraordinary intuition about people – what he calls his ‘nose’ – which means that he forms opinions very quickly and almost never needs to change his mind. Napoleon, according to him, may have been a bright guy, but giving away the French territories in North America was just plain stupid. Moreover, it had led to immense pain and suffering at the hands of the hated ‘glaoush’ – the British. For this, Napoleon could not be forgiven, ever. Not by the GC, anyway. I was a bit confused. I remember, I had to check. You mean the one who died in 1821? That Napoleon? The GC looked at me with withering scorn. Who else?.
When I came to St Pierre at last, last year, I finally understood.
St Pierre et Miquelon is a small piece of true French territory – part of the EU; self governing with representation at every level of French politics – in fact the current Representative is the Minister for the Overseas Territories in the Macron government (and a cousin of the GC’s but more of that later, possibly). It is an archipelago with two main islands – St Pierre, the smaller but with the good harbour has the eponymous town with a population of around 6000 souls and the center of government. Langlade / Miquelon were originally two separate islands but have been joined by a major sand dune for the last hundred years or so. They are large and beautiful; largely undeveloped; with beaches, forests, meadows and streams. Langlade particularly is relatively inaccessible (only by small boats that can pull up on the shallow beaches) and so is full of holiday beach homes and hunting lodges. Miquelon, which has a small harbour, has a village with a population of around 600 and is home to a few small farms – mostly sheep and poultry, with a notable goat herd for cheese and a fish factory.
The people consist of the original families of the islands – very many of them of proud Basque heritage – and the ‘maillou’, the mainland French who come here to work – mainly for the government. The two populations don’t do a lot of mixing – in a very real sense though they are of one culture and one nation the mainland French are much like the expatriates you find in other countries – here for a short term to work and make money, not to put down roots. The system is also a little complicated by the fact that the locals must leave in order to go to university or seek specialist medical treatment and thus turn to (and are very connected to) mainland France. Of course some of them turn to Quebec; have resettled or married there or maybe go there to university; but they are very clear, they are French French and not French Canadian.
Maybe a bit of history to fill in the gaps. The islands came into prominence for their rich fishing grounds–halibut, haddock and particularly cod were fished out of these waters in seemingly inexhaustible numbers from the early 1500s. The first inhabitants, fishermen from La Rochelle, St Malo and the Basque country, sailed here seasonally with their families, to fish, salt and dry the cod and then return to France for the winters. A permanent settlement arose in the early 17th century and from then on the history is a struggle for domination and possession between the French and the British. In successive waves, the French were ousted and their settlements burned; in turn they returned the compliment and retook the islands ….
The whole issue was further complicated by the fact that, having given up on the North American territories, Napoleon had in fact condemned thousands of families to forced deportment; first by the American and British interests and finally by their own governments. I hope you can read the account of the story below.
The fact that the descendants of many of those original families are still here; with their familial and cultural ties to places such as La Rochelle and St Jean de Luz – has a lot to do with the very real connection and feeling that the history is a living one. An additional layer to that is that the modern day Canadians, as members of the Commonwealth, are the morphed iteration of the British themselves.
Homes are ancestral; families are counted to five generations or more; family links and feuds are living ones. The GC was amazed that I could remember the links and stories between the people we were meeting until I reminded him that this was nothing as much as it was Arabic – and an expression of European culture that has really been lost in many of our cities and as we become more mobile in life ..
Actually this should not surprise me at all. In Muscat I’m friends with people whose ancestors were my ancestors friends and companions; easily back at least four generations; the same in Bombay. Our families have known each other for generations, it’s the same here. I think I’m just not used to finding this in an European context; that’s why it’s so interesting.
So, don’t lose sight of the fact that though the closest neighbours of the St Pierraise are the Canadians of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, these are also the traditional enemy – descendants of those early British. Modern political and economic history hasn’t helped cool this long standing enmity either; disagreements over fishing rights and negative political attitudes have kept a stranglehold on the islands, making sure that in recent years economic progress and travel have been restricted as far as possible and leading to an artwork that I’ve seen of a Canadian vice squeezing the islands.
In fact, what St Pierre is more like is Asterix’s Little Gaulish Village – hanging on grimly; totally surrounded by the enemy; with no real hope that things will change in the future but an absolute determination never to give in; to make sure that one tiny part of Gaul will always be free. Hopefully this will change with the new Free Trade Agreement signed between Canada and the EU, but we can only hope. Until that time, two tiny islands with a combined population of less than 7000 souls can’t do much except hang on with grim pride. And blame Napoleon for getting them into this mess in the first place.