Wednesday, May 3, 2017

How To Go To France Without Leaving North America

If you want to go to France, clap your hands.

Now, I'm sure that last sentence was followed by thunderous applause, because really, what lover of history doesn't want to travel? Especially to France--land of wine, magnificent churches, and endless disputes with the English, it's a history lover's dream, right? Most of my readers are American (except for the large minority of readers from Israel, which, shout out to you guys!), and you're probably thinking something along the lines of 'Yeah, I'd love to go to France, but it's  expensive! A plane ticket to Paris is several thousand dollars, and that's just the ticket!'. Well, I have some news for you, you can visit part of France without leaving North America.

Now, sure, North America France isn't quite the same as France France. There aren't large churches or sun kissed vineyards, though they've had their share of disputes with the English. There is, however, a rich history of fishing, bootlegging, and sticking it to the Nazis that you won't get in mainland France. Where am I talking about? St. Pierre and Miquelon.
St. Pierre and Miquelon is a group of eight small islands just off the coast of Newfoundland known for its plentiful fishing. It's a small area, the main island--St. Pierre--being home to only 6,000 people, but its a proud area that is, by all accounts, very French. French is the official language, and all residents speak it. There's dozens of bakeries, and the French flag flies over the island. The area has a rich and someone tumultuous history, starting from the very beginning.

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The St. Pierre and Miquelon flag.
St. Pierre and Miquelon was first discovered by Proto-Inuit people. Then the Beothuk. Probably. It's hard to tell that far back. First Nation people isn't really who you expect to 'discover' places, but I think it's important that we remember every so often that Europeans didn't discover shit. Well, they discovered Europe (probably). But that's about it.

St. Pierre and Miquelon was later 'discovered' by several European explorers, but it was the French who established the first settlement in 1536. Now, as you probably know, the pre-1777 North America was basically a tug-of-war between France and Britain, with occasional Spanish distractions. Consequentially, the  islands were annexed by the British several times, only to be re-annexed by the French later. A lot of the early settlers of St. Pierre and Miquelon ended up emigrating to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, but despite the danger French, Breton, and Basque fisherman continued to come to the islands because of their fertile fishing waters.

By 1816 the British decided to leave well enough alone, and the inhabitants of St. Pierre and Miquelon were able to return to their peaceful fishing. The island mostly did its thing interrupted until the 1920s, when America decided that prohibiting alcohol was a good idea.

Prohibition turned St. Pierre and Miquelon into an epicenter for bootlegging. Everything came in and out of the islands, and American gangsters used the area to store their illegal merchandise. St. Pierre even played host to the infamous Al Capone. The illicit activity brought great prosperity to the islands, and fishing was more or less abandoned. Until the Americans repealed the Prohibition laws, and the islanders realized that basing an economy on one product is a bad idea. The island recovered however, and fishing resumed.

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St. Pierre

World War Two was when things started to get interesting again. See, after the Germans took France the islands fell under the rule of the government of Vichy, which, while they weren't outright Nazis, they certainly had no inclination to oppose the Fuhrer. Both sides quickly realized that St. Pierre was an important tactical location for the invasion/protection of North America. Luckily, the Axis powers were unable to gain control of the islands, and St. Pierre became an important base for helping free France from Nazi rule.

Since then things have been fairly quiet in St. Pierre. It remains a small, isolated area that relies on its fishing industry, though the locals, along with oil companies, suspect that there is oil of its shores. Either way, St. Pierre and Miquelon remains a charming piece of France smack dab in the middle of Canada.

Lonely Planet
The Daily Beast
CIA World Factbook
St. Pierre and Miquelon Official Website
Grand Colombier

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