Flags, medals, anthems and crowns – does such paraphernalia really constitute a country's identity? If you think they're old-fashioned frills, just remember the recent fuss over what the Union Jack would look like if Scotland gained independence. Granted, this also prompted the sort of affectionately irreverent reimaginings of the flag which suggest we still enjoy sending up nationalistic pomp and ritual.
That enjoyable tension, between reverence for near-arbitrary symbols and an acknowledgment that inventing new traditions is a bit daft, is celebrated in a project by the French photographer Léo Delafontaine. His Micronations documents 12 tiny, self-declared territories, kingdoms and republics around the world. Some already have a certain notoriety. The Principality of Sealand, for example – essentially a platform seven miles off the Suffolk coast – prompted Harold Wilson's government to consider taking it by force. Others, meanwhile, are tourist destinations, such as Freetown Christiania, a large-scale commune in Copenhagan.
But you won't have heard of them all. The Empire of Atlantium, for instance. Founded in 1981 by a teenager in New South Wales, Australia, it now has 2,000 inhabitants – a not-insignificant population in this context, given that the Republic of Molossia in Nevada, numbers but 27 citizens.
Several recently born have even fewer numbers: the Consulate of La Boirie was founded in 2006 by three friends in their seven-hectare territory in France; Calsahara, created in the Californian desert, has also yet to hit a double-figure populace.
But they all have flags. Micronations love a flag – not to mention their own currency, stamps; traditional dress; passports and crown jewels; a national anthem and even state mottos, which typically exhibit self-aggrandisement: "We succeeded where others fail," boasts Florida's Conch Republic. "From nothing, something!" trumpets the Kingdom of Calsahara.
"There is no formal process to creating a micronation; a flag, a national anthem and a website can be enough," explains Delafontaine, pointing out that these elements take on vast significance – they're all these nation states really have to suggest their independence. For micro-nations are not officially recognised by the rest of the world. While some strive for sovereignty, as long as they still pay taxes, they're usually tolerated by their "mother country". (It no doubt helps that they tend to become instant must-see landmarks on the local tourist trails.)
The extent to which these mini-nations take themselves seriously also varies wildly. While Prince Leonard I, of the Principality of Hutt River in western Australia (population 20) tried to dissuade Delafontaine from even including them, declaring his realm an "independent country" and not a micronation at all, others are more tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, for Delafontaine, the unifying factor across these nations was a sense of irony. "When Prince Michael of Sealand poses with a huge smile wearing dirty clothes, that means to me that he does not take his responsibility too seriously."
Delafontaine's favourite nation was Elleore, a "kingdom" on a Danish island; founded by schoolteachers as a summer camp in 1944, it now has a "population" of 370 – the number of Danes who decamp there for a week each August. "People over there are really serious about their micronation and their traditions – there are history classes for kids; they created their own national sport, cracket. But they are also very fun because their main goal is to have a good time," he says. Elleore is a classic example of a politically mischievous, rather than seriously troubling, micronation – their flag is the Danish flag, rotated 45 degrees. "The symbolism here is about making fun of the kingdom of Denmark by turning its tradition with irony and irreverence.
"Obviously micronations can be a good way to criticise the country of origin," Delafontaine acknowledges. Take a bow, George Cruickshank: he may have appointed himself George II, Emperor of Atlantium, but he also considers it a left-wing beacon, countering right-wing arguments in the Australian press by being loudly pro same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
Yet Delafontaine also points out that none of the 12 places he visited – with the possible exception of Christiania, a "libertarian community" in Copenhagen – really challenge political norms or convention. "The political systems of micro-nations are always traced on existing political systems: empire, monarchy, republic. And that's too bad. I would have thought that they'd try to create something completely new."
Which is maybe why it is kitsch fun that shines through in his photographs – the elaborate visual signifiers of identity being just as important as any founding political principles for these minuscule self-appointed countries.
But while Delafontaine's photos raise a smile, the series may also prompt the viewer to ponder exactly why anyone would want to found their own nation, what an ideal nation might look like and act like, even to question the very concept of borders and nationhood. "I hope people have mixed feelings – between the desire to laugh and the need to think about the geopolitical, national and cultural questions that the micronations generate. It's a seriously funny series!"
'Micronations', by Léo Delafontaine, is published by Diaphane Editions, priced €30. To order: diaphane-editions.com
The Republic of Saugeais
Area 140sq km
Currency Saugeais and euro
History The Republic of Saugeais comprises 11 villages in the eastern French department of Haut-Doubs, on the Swiss border. It was created when Georges Pourchet, owner of the Hôtel de l'Abbaye, teased the local prefect that he needed a pass to enter his establishment. The visitor promptly appointed Pourchet president of the new Free Republic of Saugeais. Pourchet was succeeded by his widow, Gabrielle (commemorated as a talking puppet), then his daughter, Georgette. The republic now has its own stamps, national anthem and entry passes. Though the president has only a symbolic role, she is a respected figure and receives more than 200 official requests annually (weddings not included). However, the state is in quite some peril. As a hereditary republic, it will be difficult for Saugeais to outlive the Pourchet dynasty – and Georgette has had no children…
The Kingdom of Calsahara
Founded November 2009
Area 0.47sq km
Population Between 3 and 10
History Travis McHenry is a committed micronationalist. Aged 15, he founded the Kingdom of Casbah on his family's farm. In 2004, he exploited a loophole in the Antarctic Treaty to name himself Grand Duke of Westarctica on Marie Byrd Land – but the US Navy, which disapproved of its lieutenant's territorial claims, forced him to abdicate. Upon his discharge from the navy, he retorted by founding Calsahara. Originally bought by McHenry's mother-in-law in 1968, this desert area in southern California was supposed to host a giant pipeline, but the venture failed and was abandoned until 2009 – when McHenry made his claim
The Consulate of La Boirie
Founded August 2006
Area 0.07sq km
History Friends Philippe, Pascal and Sebastien appointed themselves consuls of the Boirie consulate eight years ago. The consulate comprised their seven-hectare territory in Sarthe, in the Loire region of north-western France. They proclaimed their guest house independent, declaring it a place of tolerance, hedonism and eco-citizenship. Consular business consisted largely of dinner, dancing, and murder mysteries, followed by a good night's sleep in their B&B, which had its cost – up to €326 a night (though that did include breakfast). Consular business was sadly brought to a close in August 2012 when Pascal died
The Empire of Atlantium
Founded November 1981
Area 0.76sq km
Languages English, Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin and Latin
Currency Imperial Solidus
History George Cruickshank, aka George II, Emperor of the non-secessionist Atlantium, founded his micronation not so much with the intention of breaking away from the rest of New South Wales as of creating a platform through which to campaign for issues such as gay marriage and euthanasia. It worked: he has become the go-to emperor for the media, and his television appearances have multiplied over the past few years. He is also one of the most committed micronationalists, and presides over PoliNations, whose cycle of conferences bring micronations together
The Kingdom of Elleore
Area 1.55sq km
Languages Danish and Interlingua
Currency Leo D'or
History A summer camp begun by local schoolteachers on a strip of land in the Roskilde fjord, an hour's drive north-west of Copenhagen, has evolved into an annual reunion, one week each August, of King Leo III and his people. The teachers wished to promote the progressive philosophy of their school by parodying the traditions of the Danish state. They thus unwind with the national sport of cracket, set up their own city hall, bank and nightclub, and observe eccentric laws: bringing canned sardines or a copy of 'Robinson Crusoe' to the territory risks a prison sentence of 11 minutes and 17 seconds on a nearby islandReuse content