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Government, The Overseas Territories and Departments

Comoros Islands, island of Tahiti, New Hebrides, French empire, French Community

France’s remaining overseas dependencies are the last vestiges of a once-vast colonial empire. By the early 20th century the French empire included colonies in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Indian and Pacific oceans. These dependencies enjoyed varying degrees of integration into the French polity. Algeria, for example, was treated almost as if it were just another part of metropolitan France. Resistance to French rule in the colonies grew after World War II (1939-1945), first in Indochina, then Algeria, triggering long and bloody military conflicts. France’s forced withdrawal from these territories preceded a wave of decolonization throughout its empire. From 1954 to 1962 most of France’s overseas possessions sought and ultimately gained formal independence. Since 1962, several additional territories have sought and received independence, including the Comoros Islands in 1975, French Somaliland (now Djibouti) in 1977, and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in 1980.

During the first decades of the Fifth Republic, France’s overseas dependencies were known collectively as the French Community. Members of the community cooperated in matters of foreign policy, defense policy, and economic policy. The French president played an important leadership role in community affairs. The wholesale disappearance of its former colonies, however, prompted France in 1995 to repeal the constitutional provisions that established the French Community.

Today France maintains four overseas territories, four overseas departments, and two special status areas. The overseas territories enjoy substantial autonomy over internal affairs, although France provides defense and oversees their legal and criminal justice systems. In contrast, the overseas departments and special status islands are much like departments in metropolitan France; they are administered by elected councils and by a prefect who represents France. Combined, these overseas regions contribute 22 representatives to the 577-seat National Assembly in Paris.

The overseas territories are French, which includes the island of Tahiti; New Caledonia; the Wallis and Futuna islands in the Pacific Ocean; and French Southern and Antarctic Lands. The overseas departments are Guadeloupe, a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea; Martinique, a Caribbean island; French Guiana, situated on the northern coast of South America; and Reunion, an island group in the Indian Ocean. The special status areas are Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, an island collectivity off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Mayotte, an island that chose to remain tied to France when the rest of the Comoros opted for independence.



Article key phrases:

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