Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

No Chance for Biafra: Africa & Balkanization

Welcome back to!

This time, this topic is inspired by the film “Half a Yellow Sun” which is itself inspired by the book of the same name. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a Ted Talk on the “The danger of a single story”, which is also extremely inspiring.

The story is about a young woman, Olanna, who grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family and studied abroad, who decides to take up a position at the University of Nsukka, in the South of Nigeria where her boyfriend works. It is with Olanna’s story that the breaking of the Nigerian civil war, or the Biafran War, erupts in 1967. Olanna and her family are then forced to flee their home and see their loved ones die amidst this conflict.Olanna’s family are Igbos and (or Ibos) wanted to seize independence from the rest of the country after years of oppression.

The Biafran War

Like many African countries, Nigeria is a purely colonial creation which did not exist as a political entity before being colonised by Britain. Organised in tribes and kingdoms, the parts of what constitutes Nigeria today were independent fragments in contact with one another, notably for trade. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the United Kingdom conquered all administrative regions, which were regrouped in Protectorates. In 1914, the Protectorates were merged to form Nigeria.

Nigeria seized independence from the United Kingdom on October 1st, 1960, after decades of ‘struggle for freedom’ and self-determination. The Republic of Nigeria was subsequently divided into three federal regions, then four in 1963. In 1966, the government was toppled and replaced by a succession of military governments, which continued until 1979.

The military governments exacerbated ethnic divisions, of which the Igbos, the ethnicity from the South Eastern region of Nigeria, were at the receiving end. As a consequence, on 30 May, 1967, the Head of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independence of ‘East Nigeria’, renamed ‘Republic of Biafra’. On 15 January 1970, the loyalist army, backed by British, American and Soviet troops, regained control of the Biafran region, seven days after Col. Ojukwu had fled to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.


Col. Ojukwu ready to flee while the population of Biafra suffers

Almost three years of civil war where the central Nigerian government tried to regain control of the secessionist region left 1 million civilians dead from fighting and famine. The Biafran war also led to the creation of modern humanitarian interventions.

De facto state and African Unity

Foreign interests played a very important role in the resolution of the Biafran crisis:  first for securing the stability of oil supplies (the Biafra region sits on most of Nigeria’s underground and offshore oil resources, the country’s only natural resource); second, for guaranteeing the unity of Nigeria for stability reasons. Note that those arguments are also applicable to the Nigerian government as well.

On the Biafran side, the strategy was to make the conflict last as long as possible in the hope of gaining international support, and thus armament. This worked to a certain extent as several countries like Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia formally recognized the newly created state. They also counted on the emotion created by the death toll (referred to as a genocide against the Igbos), the displacement of population and general humanitarian crisis in progress in Biafra to appeal to the international community’s emotion to support the Biafran cause.

For the Nigerian central government, maintaining the Nigerian unity was essential. The African Unity Organization, the ancestor of the African Union and whose principal objective was to “promote the unity and solidarity of African states”, strongly sided with Lagos. It was also in most African countries’ interest to do so as if Biafra would have become an internationally recognized state, it would have created a precedent which would have certainly inspired many secessionist regions to do the same, thus shaking the fragile post-colonial fragility of the continent. Britain and the USSR, surprisingly amidst the Cold War, both supported the territorial integrity option.

The fear of Balkanization

The case of Nigeria in the late 60s is not an isolated case as several ethnicities, notably in Africa, have been fighting for fair political representation and equal rights with other groups within their own countries. No need to look too far back to find examples: think Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey.

The issue that is often brought up to explain why Africa is so conflict-ridden since the end of colonialism in the 60s is that states are colonial constructions that have been arbitrarily drawn (also see the Sykes Picot agreement which redrawn the Middle East).  Before Europeans arrived in Africa, borders were formed by natural obstacles – rivers, mountains, etc. – and each ethnicity had its more or less defined own territory. To ease their ruling over the newly conquered lands, European settlers regrouped several regions under the same jurisdictions; this inevitably caused friction as the different people composing those administrative districts had never had to work together as part of the same entity, be it political, economic or cultural.

It is thus without surprise that ethnic tension and independence movements have been emerging in Africa, causing civil wars and sometimes genocide. Some regions would potentially be viable as independent states: Somaliland, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden, possesses all the attributes of a sovereign state (currency, stable government, army and police force, etc.), much more than Somalia itself which is considered a failed state. Despite this, Somaliland is not recognized as an independent state by the international community. Among all the African regions claiming independence, only two managed to get international recognition since decolonisation: South Sudan which officially seized independence in 2011, and Eritrea which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Other than that, the colonial map has not changed since the independence waves.

Does the secession of a country solely depend on international support? It appears that South Sudan was able to access to full statehood because of the strong support the independence movement received from the international community, notably in the US. Is it then still down to international powers to decide? One could invoke the argument of genocide of ongoing civil war which helped the case of South Sudan; but this argument still did not allow countries like Rwanda (or Nigeria if you consider the Biafran war as a genocide) to be divided.

In general, the international community fears the “Balkanization” of Africa, whereby countries were to be divided into several smaller one (think Yugoslavia which is now divided into 7 independent countries). Dealing with one government is easier than with multiple; organizing a territorial partition is never an easy task, especially when natural resources are involved. Supporting the independence movements in Africa would come to question the inheritance of the colonial era. In the international community’s mind, and especially in that of the former colonial powers involved in Africa – France and Great Britain – more African members of the United Nations would potentially mean mmore voices to oppose the old colonial order. It would also have probably meant more members of the Non-Aligned Movement to question the West’s superiority.

Going back to the case of Nigeria, the independence of Biafra was not feasible as the project was carried by a single self-interested man who did not hesitate to leave the ship when he saw it was going to sink. National and international interests were also strongly opposing this option, making the project of an independent state totally unlikely.

The case of Biafra is an interesting one because it was the first case which raised the international community’s interest due to the extent of the humanitarian crisis. It, however, was not sufficient to push for the division of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is the fastest economically growing country in Africa thanks, in parts, to the oil reserves. The destiny of Nigeria would probably have been very different if Biafra had become independent, leaving with most natural reserves.

Further thoughts

This fear of the balkanization of Africa is not only applicable to this continent. The remodelling of borders is dreaded by all nations, including Western ones. It is widely accepted that current states are in their final forms. But the independence movements such as in Scotland, Britany, Catalonia and others, tend to think otherwise. The redrawing of borders has been a constant in history, and there seems to be an urge to continue to do so in certain regions. There is, however, a strong tendency to maintain the status quo even if it leaves many discontent.


Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

Nauru: When Development Goes Wrong  

Imagine an island lost in the middle of an Ocean where people have lived in peace and harmony with the local nature and wildlife for centuries. Then imagine the damages of colonialism and the exploitation to exhaustion of the local natural resource. Then what? Well, everything, from the local culture, wildlife, source of revenues and chance for a bright future have disappeared. This is what happened to several isolated places around the world. The most extreme case is, however, that of Nauru. This little island of 21 square kilometers located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has been through it all, from peace to war, from a quiet traditional life to extreme westernization, and from wealth to poverty.

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Discovered in 1789 by a British Captain who nicknamed it ‘Pleasant Island’, Nauru was then colonized by Germany in 1888 and taken over by Australia after World War I. The Japanese occupation during World War II dramatically reduced the local population by deporting two-thirds of them to Micronesia for force labour, or because of starvation and bombings during the war. After the conflict, Nauru became a trust territory administered by Australia. The island finally seized its independence in 1968, thus becoming the world’s smallest sovereign entity of the time.

From ‘Heaven’ to Hell

In 1900, it was discovered that Nauruans were sitting on large amounts of phosphate, a highly demanded natural resource used as fertilizer for agriculture. The exploitation of the mineral thus started. The production became more intense with the development of new means of transportation and the modernization of the industry. Australia was the main importer of the resource. The entire economy of Nauru adapted to the wealth of their soil: all traditional occupations disappeared and everyone reconverted into the production of phosphate. As the local population was not sufficient, foreigners arrived on the island, mainly from neighboring islands but also from Asia. At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that “out of a total population of 12,000, some 4,000 are foreigners. Australians serve as managers, doctors and engineers, Chinese run the restaurants and shops, while other Pacific islanders do the dirty work in the mines.”

Phosphate made Nauru extremely rich: in the 1970s, the island even became the second largest country in the world, with three times the GDP of the United States. The island quickly developed, and the newly founded sovereign state took it upon itself to offer the best services to its population, possible thanks to the revenues generated by the mining. With the feeling that the wrongs of the past had been corrected, namely that the local resources were finally in the hands of the local population after decades of foreign rule, the Nauruans were now able to consume to their liking, and did not need to work to enjoy a high quality of life. The government could indeed provide free health care and education to everyone without imposing taxes.

This situation lasted as long as there was phosphate left: being a finite resource, phosphate eventually ran out. The ‘resource curse‘ had stricken.

A Series of Poor choices

Nobody was oblivious: it was clear from the very beginning that the phosphate would not last forever. A series of measures to continue benefiting from the revenues of the mineral were put in place such as a diversity of investments abroad. Most of them, contracted by the Australian authorities and the Nauruans government both seemed to have met misfortune, thus shrinking the long term revenues for the island. In addition, eager to enjoy their wealth, the Nauruan governments made some poor choices which cost them later on: the creation of a local airline, Air Nauru, was clearly not adapted to the needs and size of the island with its 7 planes even though the local population was around 10,000 inhabitants. When the revenues came to lack, Nauru was no longer able to pay for all the services it had previously offered, and accumulated large amounts of debt it tried to cover by asking for loans from the Asian Central Bank, but also by trying to become an offshore banking center, and tax haven for the Russian mafia, without success as the G7 quickly put an end to it. Nauru even sued Australia in 1989 in front of the International Court of Justice asking for repair for the destruction of one third of the island during the colonial era. Australia settled the suit for about $75 million. The fall of the price of phosphate in the 90s only worsened the situation, until it ran out in the early 2000.

The story of Nauru’s descent from prosperity to penury is one of the most cautionary tales of modern development

Dramatic Consequences

Beyond the impact on the local economy, the exploitation of phosphate irreversibly affected numerous aspects of Nauru’s life. First, the local population seems to have forgotten how to do anything with is not linked to mining; fishing has long been forgotten and replaced by imported processed food and the excavation of the phosphate has destroyed all possible arable land. As a result, the island entirely depends on imports for its food and the population presents high levels of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, and the life expectancy has dramatically dropped to 50 for men and 55 for women. It is estimated that 95% of the population is overweight.


Nauru from the sky – Photo: Radio Australia

The consequences for the local climate are also worth mentioning: the deforestation on 90% of the islands have induced a continuous drought and is struck by heat waves. In addition, the local population lives on the coast, which is only 10 meters above the sea level, making them very vulnerable in the face of climate change and the rising of the oceans. For that reason, Nauru has joined 44 other small countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) who fight together to ensure the survival of their threatened nations. The Maldives are on the forefront of the battle, hoping to put pressure on the big countries to halt the already ongoing global warming process which is already harming many in small islands around the globe.

Today, “seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation.”

All in all, Nauru has become “case study for environmentalists and anthropologists in how easy it is to destroy a tropical ecosystem and crush a native culture.”

Finding Something Else To Do

The phosphate age is over and Nauru has needed to find new sources of revenue, which it has found by working with Australia. “Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands.”

As a result, Nauru has become a refugee camp for all those got caught while trying to reach Australia by the seas. Since 2001, the Nauru Regional Processing Center has been hosting around 650 refugees at a time in unsanitary barracks. “In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” which corroborates with the numerous cases of violence and rape which have become public.

Although it does not come close to the revenues once generated by phosphate, supporting ‘Solution Pacific’ is what Nauru has found to get some revenues. Who knows what will happen when the UNHCR will finally act and close those camps and Australia addresses their refugee crisis…

More about Nauru

I recently finished reading a novel taking place in Nauru titled “J’ai entraîné mon peuple dans cette aventure” (I led my people in this adventure) by Aymeric Patricot. Based on the history of the island, the story shows through the eyes of the main character how he experienced the changes the island was confronted to, how the local life evolved and how the local authorities, Australian than Nauruans exploited the phosphate and led the country to its loss. Although romanticized, the book appears to give a clear image of what happened in Nauru and how the local population who were eager to have access to more led their country to their doom.


Decolonization, History and Culture, Security & Defense

France’s forgotten territories: The TAAF

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. The topic of the conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets. Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.



This week, our world tour continues. We are moving to another part of the world, on the other side of the planet. In the Southern hemisphere, France possesses several territories regrouped under the TAAF, the “terres australes et antactiques française“. This group of territories is made of five districts of islands and land. What those have in common is that they are permanently inhabited – let me emphasize the “permanently” because scientists regularly explore them – they are also natural reserves. They have acquired the status of overseas territories in 1955 (and 2005 for the îles Éparses) which granted them financial and administrative autonomy.

The TAAF give France 2 300 000 km² of exclusive economic zone (EEZ), contributing to France’s maritime power. They also are rich in natural resources, notably the îles Éparses which are located off the shore of Mozambique, a region rich in fossil fuel.

Two ships make those pieces of land reachable: the Marion Dufresne from Saint-Pierre, Réunion and the Astrolabe from Australia to Terre Adélie. The TAAF are so original and peculiar that the troops and scientists deployed there have developed their own words to adapt to the local conditions. A new dialect was born: the Taafien.

Terre Adélie

Base Dumont d'Urville is located 5 km off the continental coast of Antartica

Base Dumont d’Urville is located 5 km off the continental coast of Antarctica

Terre Adélie is a piece of the antarctic continent internationally recognized as belonging to France. The Treaty of Washington of 1959 ‘froze’ all sovereignty claims in an effort to use the Antarctic for peace and science and not as another proxy of the Cold War. The nuclearization and weaponization of the Antarctica is thus prohibited. The Madrid Protocol added an environmental component to the Treaty, thus ensuring the protection of the nature of Antarctica.

The scientific base Dumont d’Urville, which was named after the Frenchman who discovered and claimed the territory in 1840, was built in 1956. It has an international scope and includes the study of the local wildlife which includes emperor penguins, the study of geology, seismology, climate and meteorology, and much more.

France’s piece of land spreads over 432 000 km² of ice (bigger than Germany), from the South Pole to the ocean. France shares its longest land border there, with Australia.

Iles Éparses

Map of Iles Eparses - Aurélie Boissière

Map of Iles Eparses – Aurélie Boissière

The Iles Éparses, or the scattered islands, do not form a homogeneous group as the district is made of several archipelagos separated by hundreds of kilometers. They are mostly located in the Mozambique Canal, around Madagascar and La Réunion.

The Iles Eparses are constituted by l’archipel des Glorieuses, Juan de Nova, Europa and Bassas da India, and Tromelin. They are all permanently inhabited but welcome military contingencies and meteorologists which are responsible for ensuring France’s sovereignty over the territories.

The weather station plays an important role in the region as the data collected serves to monitor cyclones, a recurrent problem in the region. All the islands are also natural reserves as they have been barely touched by civilization.

This district of the TAAF remains, however, the object of a dispute between France and Madagascar. In 1960, Madagascar seized independence from its colonizer, France. However, three months before the referendum took place, a decree was passed in France removing the Iles Eparses from Madagascar’s vote. The islands thus remained attached to the hexagon while Madagascar retrieved its independence. In 1970, the issue was brought up by the local government, asking France to return the islands. Since 1979, the dispute brought to the United Nations, which issued a resolution urging France to engage negotiations with Madagascar. The resolution had not results and the situation is still not settled. It has been announced that the litigation will be discussed at the next General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2016.

The contentious has risen again over the last few months as the Iles Eparses may be floating over large reserves of oil, which of course have raised both Madagascar and France’s attention. The President of Madagascar offered France to co-administer the islands with them, a proposal which was naturally brushed off by the French.

It must be noted that the island of Tromelin is also the object of a territorial dispute as Mauritius is also claiming sovereignty.

District de Saint-Paul et Amesterdam, District de Crozet, District de Kerguelen 

The Kerguelen islands emerged 40 millions years ago and are the visible part of submerged volcano. They, however, appeared differently than the typical volcanic islands do (such as Iceland and Hawaii), which made the archipelago very interesting and important in the eyes of scientists. The main island, Grand Terre was discovered in 1772 and claimed in the name of France by Yves Joseph Kerguelen de Trémarec, who gave his name to the territory.

Follow the blog of the missions deployed there here. The islands are of particular importance from a scientific point of view as they serve as observatory for climate change for example.

The District of Saint-Paul and Amsterdam is very rich in fish and lobster, and famous for their wildlife. While Saint-Paul is relatively abandoned, Amsterdam island hosts a scientific base which has been put in place in 1949. The presence of human life there has impacted the local fauna and flora drastically, with irremediable consequences.

The Crozet islands are made out of two main groups of islands, located 110 km apart, somewhere between Madagascar and Antarctica. They were discovered by the French explorer Marc-Jospeh Marion-Dufresne in 1772, who gave his name to the ship supplying and reaching most TAAF. Administered from Madagascar between 1923 and 1955, the islands then became a TAAF, thus falling under the administration of the Ministry of the Overseas. The Edgar Faure scientific base implanted there focused on meteorological concerns.

The TAAF, although made of what seems like insignificant islands in the middle of the seas, actually bring France with various economic, geostrategic and environmental advantages. They also contribut to making France the second maritime domaine, right behind the USA, with 11 millions of km² of EEZ. The TAAF are for the most part made out of ice but they are crucial for scientific research.


Decolonization, History and Culture

France’s forgotten territories: Saint Helena, Guernsey and Oberhausen

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. The topic of the conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets. Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.

Last week, I told you about the pieces of land France owns in Europe; Ile Julia and Ile des Faisans, two territories with very distinct but quirky stories. In this article, I will touch upon French possessions which relate to famous figures in French history. On foreign soil, France owns houses and memorials to perpetrate the glory of several French heroes.

Saint Helena and Napoléon

Longwood, Napoleon's quarters on Saint Helena

Longwood, Napoleon’s quarters on Saint Helena

Napoléon is still today one of France’s biggest pride; the name of the emperor comes with the idea of greatness, grandeur, reforms and modernity as some of Napoléon’s creation are still in place today, such as the Code Civile, even beyond France. Going back to the topic of this article, we must go to Saint Helena where the Emperor died in exile in May 1825. The house and area where the Emperor died still belongs to France today, in memory of the national figure Napoleon was and still remains. There is therefore a French enclave on British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean; it is Longwood, Napoleon’s last residence, as well as the small pavilion Briars and the Valley of the Tomb where Napoleon was first buried. The isolation of Saint Helena makes visiting the island very difficult (this is what made it so interesting for exiling Napoleon) as only one ship accesses the territory every three weeks. The construction of an airport due to open in 2016 might change everything. We can expect hoards of tourists rushing to Saint Helena to follow Napoleon’s last steps. But think that tourist shops will probably be set up. If they are within the French enclaves, tourists will have to pay in Euros will being surrounding by British territories were the British Pound is used. It might get confusing for many.

Guernsey and Victor Hugo 

Victor Hugo's House, Hauteville House, St Peter Port.

Victor Hugo’s House, Hauteville House, St Peter Port.

This case is actually quite similar to the previous one: there is a piece of land on a British island which used to belong to a famous Frenchman which now belongs to France. This time, we are talking about Victor Hugo’s house on the island of Guernsey located between France and the UK, in the middle of the Channel. An again, just like Napoleon, Hugo was in exile (from 1856 tp 1870). Victor Hugo had already been in exile in Guernsey for five years for opposing the coup d’état staged by Napoléon III and had been banished from Brussels and Jersey successively . With the proceeds from sales of the anthology Les Contemplations, published in 1856, he purchased an estate comprising a five-storey house, garden and belvedere overlooking Havelet bay, in Saint Peter Port.”. It is the sale of Les Contemplations which enabled him to put a roof on his head, namely that of the Hauteville House, on the British island. It is the famous writer who decorated the interior of the house. “Hauteville House remained in the family until 1927, when Jeanne Nègreponte, Victor Hugo’s grand-daughter and the children of his grandson Georges Hugo donated it to the City of Paris on the occasion of the celebrations marking one hundred years of Romanticism.” Today, the City of Paris still administers Hauteville House.

La Tour d’Auvergne in Oberhausen, Bavaria

Latour Memorial in Oberhausen, Bavaria

Latour Memorial in Oberhausen, Bavaria

Théophile Malo de La Tour d’Auvergne-Corret was a French soldier and musketeer, who throughout his life, has been recognized as brave. He also took an active part in the French Revolution. Refusing many promotions under the Ancien Régime despite his central role in several wars, notably against Spain at the end of the 18th century, he finally received the title of “Premier grenadier de de la République” from Napoléon Bonaparte. He died at war in Oberhausen, Bavaria in June 1880. His superior; General Moreau, in honour of his death, acquired a piece of land where La Tour d’Auvergne died to bury him there (see picture). This piece of land still belongs to France today, even though the remain of La Tour d’Auvergne were moved to the Panthéon in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1789.


Decolonization, History and Culture

France’s forgotten territories: Ile des Faisans and Ile Julia

Bruno Fulgini at the ANAJ IHEDN conference in Paris on 29.10.15

Bruno Fuligni at the ANAJ IHEDN conference in Paris on 29.10.15

Yesterday evening I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. On top of taking place in an amazing location (you get a close up view onto the Eiffel Tower from there), this is also an important location for whoever is interested by questions of defence. A special organisation was created to address those questions. For the ANAJ IHEDN, defence means more than what you would first assume. Defence is cultural, intellectual, military and so much more.

The topic of yesterday’s conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets.

Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.

In this article, I will not refer to the DROM and COM, the inhabited overseas territories that everybody knows about – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Wallis et Futuna, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, Mayotte, French Guyana, etc. In this article I will only touch upon some of the examples which were discussed yesterday as the list of those French forgotten territories is long. I will start with the French possessions which are located in Europe. On top of the French enclaves in Germany, which I will not discussed as they are inhabited and not so uncommon, many islands, rocks, archipelago, houses, enclaves, etc. still belong to France; in my opinion, those places are worth knowing about.

The pheasants

Ile des Faisans

Ile des Faisans

In the south-west of France, a river called Bidassoa marks the border with Spain. In the middle of this river, the tiny “ile des Faisans” (3000 m2) is a historical curiosity and landmark. Most people believe that this island was named after the birds when it is actually referring to the use of this piece of land, which the nickname of the island, “the island of the Conference” gives us a hint. Indeed, the island has been widely used for diplomatic purposes. “Faisans” is in fact a reference to the “doers” or the diplomats and not to the birds. The island was indeed used several times to settle dispute between France and Spain. It was on the Bidassoa that Francois I was returned to France in exchange for his sons. It was also there that, in 1659, the marriage of Louis XIV and Marie Therese of Austria, daughter of Philip IV of Spain was settled, as agreed in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Since the treaty, the island is a French and Spanish condominium, meaning that, although the island is not inhabited, the police administering the territory changes every six months. Next February, France will then have to pass on the keys to Spain until next August. Although fastidious, this system has avoided many confrontations between the two neighbour countries which have used this island as a safe haven to decide on the destiny of the two nations. Only diplomats could have imagined this administrative arrangement..


A volcanic eruption created Ile Julia (or Fernandea)

A volcanic eruption created Ile Julia (or Fernandea)

The other example which is worth mentioning is actually quite a funny story as France is the owner of a ghost island in the Mediterranean, between Sicily and Malta.  Ile Julia (or Ferdinandea for the Italians and Graham for the Brits) is particularly worth dwelling on as it no longer exists but might reappear. In 1831 an island appeared as a result of a submarine volcano eruption. The Italians rushed to claim ownership by throwing a row on this hot piece of land. The row burned, thus destroying the Italian sovereignty. The Brits then sent the navy, but the ship was too big to get close enough to put a flag. The French then sent a scientific mission to conquer the land and study the mysterious island. A few months later, the French government sent another mission to reinforce their settlement. The island was, however, no longer there. Turns out the island was only made of volcanic dust which had been washed away by the waves. So technically, France is the owner of a ghost island.

Maybe, someday, Julia Island will reappear. And due to its key strategic location, and despite France’s official sovereignty rights on Julia,  there might be some opposition to France’s sovereignty claim. When the island reappears, it will be crucial to reassert the claim against the competitors… it must be remembered that the competition will be tough, especially considering that Italy placed a waterproof flag on the volcano after Mr. Fuligni joked in one of his article that France should do it….

There are many more examples I need to tell you about; they all have their own stories and their own quirks.

Next time, read about the special and tiny places France owns across the globe and which report to its national history, and more precisely to some very important figures.


Decolonization, History and Culture

Indian Ocean: the other migrant crisis

As explained in my previous post, Mayotte is a French Overseas Territories which voted to be more integrated and become a Departement d’Outre Mer, therefore abiding to French and European laws.

As a French possession, Mayotte enjoys better living conditions than neighbouring and former fellow country-men in Comoros. When the Comoros decided to seize their independence and Mayotte voted to go their separate ways, each territory started on separate path – towards independence for the Comoros and towards remaining a relic of colonialism in the case of Mayotte.

The fact that Mayotte refused to build a common future with the rest of the archipelago stirred up problems in the region. Historical and cultural arguments have been put forward by the Comoros to explain how the partition of Mayotte from the Comoros went against the territorial integrity of the archipelago which is made of 4 and not 3 islands. It is on this basis that the President of the Comoros have appealed to the UN General Assembly to reject France’s “annexation” of Mayotte, which was made in accordance with people’s right to self-determination (although the results of the referendum were contested) and against the principle of territorial integrity.

Illegal immigration: Mayotte’s attractiveness 

Every year, thousands of Comorians cross the seas from their islands to Mayotte to immigrate illegally. At a time when we speak of the migration waves from the Middle East to Western Europe, the migration crisis in the Indian Ocean is swept under the carpet, although the phenomenon is important and has increased since Mayotte became a French département. What attracts the Comorians to Mayotte is the French Département’s development and wealth. It is estimated that Mayotte’s GDP is 7 times higher than that of the Comoros. the French health care system, much more advanced, better sanitized and also cheaper than in the neighbouring islands.

In addition, Mayotte has become a birth center in the region as all babies born in Mayotte automatically become French citizen. Indeed, the legal principle of jus soli, or right of soil, applies in Mayotte, thus granting the French nationality to anyone born in Mayotte. Jus soli is opposed to jus sanguinis which would require one of the parents to be French citizens for the newborn to gain the French nationality. It is believed that a third of the population of Mayotte, that is to say 50,000 to 60,000 people out of 21,700 (2013) are illegal immigrants, amongst which 90% come from the Comoros. (NB: a similar phenomenon can be observed in French Guyana, where mothers from neighbouring countries travel to give birth in the French overseas territories)

Mariane, the French allegory to Anjouan, one of the Comoros' island:

Marianne, the French allegory to Anjouan, one of the Comoros’ island: “I’ve already told, I cannot adopt you too”

Although the French border control attempt to keep the Comorians away, the attractiveness of Mayotte seems to be a sufficient motive for the illegal migrants to risk their lives over and over on kwassas-kwassas, the local fishermen’ boats, to cross the seas. The 70km that separate the island of Anjouan to Mayotte are deadly; it is estimated that up to 10,000 people have died since 1995 trying to reach the French territory.

This migration pattern, however, causes problems in Mayotte as the medical system is not built to also cure the population of the Comoros. The local finances are thus in deficit because of the migrants. Estimates judge that more than 50% of mothers giving birth in Mayotte are from the Comoros.

In addition to the weight on the health care system, immigrants cost a fortune: the border police must deploy important means to prevent illegal immigration and send the migrants back to where they came from (20,000 Comorians were rejected by the French border police in 2014). Illegal immigration was triggered by the imposition of a visa without which Comorians cannot visit Mayotte. The cost of that visa is, however, prohibitive for more Comorians, who thus prefer to go “visit” the neighbouring island via the fishermen’s boats.

What solution? 

The problem is historical: Mayotte is historically a part of the Comoros, and thus cannot be isolated from the other islands. It has been evaluated that a third of the migrants who come to Mayotte were born there, and thus only wish to go back rather than to immigrate. In addition, the visa – commonly called “visa Balladur”, but a financial strain on those historical and cultural ties which the Comoros and Mayotte share. On top of that, Mayotte is geographically isolated from the continent, and the Comoros are important partners for the island. Cutting the ties completely would be disastrous.

Plus, and although Mayotte is in development and still lags far behind the metropole, the island is very attractive for the neighbouring islands due to the available means France brings to Mayotte. In order to stop illegal immigration, supporting the development of the Comoros is part of the solution.

Many advocate for a more forceful method to stop the illegal transit of people to Mayotte, such as the creation of the equivalent of Frontex at the French level. But as shown by the migrant crisis in Europe, this type of military mission is not a deterrent to those looking for better living conditions.


History and Culture, The political use of...

The political use of memory: The Budapest Memorial

On a recent trip to Budapest, Hungary I was astonished by the beauty of the city. The calm and majesty of Buda, the trendiness and liveliness of Pest, the weirdness of the local language, and the history of Budapest caught me off guard and really left a great impression on me.

Amongst all that, we discovered a memorial on Szabadság ter (Freedom Square). Built in memory of the victims of the nazi occupation, the monument is, however, the object of controversy since the start of its construction. It needs to be added that the erection of the memorial was finished during a night of July 2014, by workers who had been escorted and protected by 100 policemen.

The apple of discord

The monument is made of several elements: a statue of Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary, and a gruesome imperial eagle representing the nazis. Built to commemorate the death of all the Hungarians following the invasion by Germany in 1944, the meaning of the installation is however harshly contested by the civil society and the opposition who invoke historical facts to counteract the government’s “official history”.


The construction raises number of questions: what role did the Hungarian government play in the Second World War? What was their bargain with Germany? Who did what? But above all, the question is: can a country who collaborated with offenders (here nazi Germany) be considered occupied? According to the monument, Hungary was yet another victim of Germany. According to its detractors, Hungary called for it by collaborating with Germany – the government played with the devil when they decided to take some distances when they realised the situation was getting bad and Germany was accumulating more and more losses.

What really happened? (for more, click here and here)

In November 1940, although not fascist himself, Miklas Horthy, the anticommunist regent and virtual dictator of Hungary, reluctantly aligned Hungary with Hitler, hoping to keep the country away from Soviet domination. Right-wing individuals also pushed for this option. When Germany turned onto Russia in 1941, they asked Hungary to mobilize their troops to support the war effort. The Hungarian 2nd Army was decimated by the USSR in 1943, following which Horthy looked into withdrawing from the alliance with Germany, and into building stronger connections with Western powers. Hearing about this plan, the Germans kidnapped Horthy and replaced him by Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, who organised harsher repression against the Jewish populations. The country was finally liberated by the Red Army in December 1944.

Controversial memory 

The memorial is clearly trying to separate Hungary from the nazis, saying that all the horrors that were committed had been done under threats and obligations, or perpetrated directly by the Germans. This is where memory counts; because the Hungarian civil society remembers the facts differently. The government’s version omits to say that deportations and terror started well before 1944 when Szalasi took power; Miklas Horthy passed a series of anti-Semitic laws from 1920, as well as organized the deportation of  Jews. In addition, there were supporters of the fascist movement in Hungary who collaborated with the nazis, placed the Jews in ghettos and organised their deportations. 20150731_173115

The Hungarian population is split on the matter. When asked whether they agree with the monument, 38% say they are against, 38% in favour, the rest uncertain or neutral. There is therefore a need for political dialogue which includes all groups, parties and opinions, in order to define a common history for the country. An official dialectic cannot be made unilaterally by the government without the consent of the population.

Social activists have thus contested the memorial project from the beginning. Baffled by the fact the monument was still being built despite the fact that a fringe of the population demanded that a referendum would be organized to settle the question, which was rejected by the Parliament, they organized. The monument surroundings are now covered in memorabilia, artifacts, posters and explanations of why they oppose the installation. They also set up a space for people to discuss the problematic next to the statue. They offer a platform for discussion, thus doing what the government should have done.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and those who created and erected the monument are accused of “falsifying the Holocaust” by getting a monument “confusing the murderer and the victim” erected “in the shelter of the night.” [They] accused Orbán of dishonouring all Jewish, Roma and gay victims of the Holocaust, and added that it was “characteristic of the regime that it did not dare set up the statue of falsehood during the day.”(EurActiv) 20150731_172801

Memory is a powerful political tool which can be used to justify certain actions. Failing to recognize that the government of Hungary took part in spreading terror in Hungary before and during the Second World War is falsifying history. Horty most certainly acted to secure the interests of his country, hoping to be on the winning side for once. They probably felt pressured by their German ally to follow their lead. Those are mitigating factors, not excuses.

With the rise of Orban in Hungary accompanying the spread of far right movements across Europe, there is a need to explore history in order to build memories as close as the facts. History must not be allowed to be distorted for any reason, especially to justify xenophobic or racists policies.