François Hollande has returned from an exhausting, 28,000-mile, globe-girdling “tour de France”.
The French President’s destinations included Futuna, a small island in the Pacific, which has never previously been visited by its own head of state. The inhabitants speak French and elect a member of the French parliament, and the island belongs to the European Union.
By setting foot there, Mr Hollande fulfilled an election pledge to become the first president to visit all the 11 inhabited “overseas” parts of France during his five-year term of office.
Many voters might have preferred President Hollande to fulfil other election pledges, such as a lasting reduction in France’s high rate of unemployment. While flying around the Gallic globe this week, and calling on three South American countries, the unpopular Mr Hollande missed a near melt-down of his own Socialist party.
All the same, it is quite an achievement to visit all the faraway islands and territories which are forever France. No previous French head of state has even come close.
France is a country on which the sun never sets. Its national territory extends to the Caribbean, the North Atlantic, and the Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans.
Those parts of it that were once colonies are now, like all of them, départements, or territoires or collectivités d’outre-mer – counties or territories across the seas. They are constitutionally as much a part of France as Calais. They are part of the EU, and some use the euro.
With which country does France have its longest land border? Answer: Brazil. What is Australia’s nearest neighbour to the east? Answer: France.
Mr Hollande has not quite been to every scrap of the French world. He has yet to visit the French Antarctic, inhabited only by scientists and penguins. He has also yet to tick off Clipperton, a large rock off the Pacific coast of central America inhabited solely by sea birds.
But in December 2014, he became the first French President to make a lengthy visit to Saint Pierre and Miquelon; these two islands off Newfoundland, with a combined population of 6,080, are the last remnants of the French empire in North America.
In December 2013, he visited French Guiana, which has a long border with Brazil. In August 2014, he was in Mayotte and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. In November 2014, he was in Nouvelle-Calédonie, the sprawling archipelago east of Australia.
In June last year, he visited all the French West Indies islands – not just the big ones, Martinique and Guadeloupe, but also the small ones, including Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy.
In the past week, he has completed the set. He visited French Polynesia in the central Pacific, though not each of its 118 islands. While there he promised more state help for scores of people who believe they have developed cancer as a result of French nuclear tests carried out in the Pacific up to the 1990s.
He also went to Wallis and Futuna in the western Pacific. French presidents have previously visited Wallis but Mr Hollande also made a point of going to its smaller sister, Futuna.
There has been a certain amount of ribaldry in the French press and social media. Odd pictures of Mr Hollande in his dark presidential suit, with garlands of flowers almost hiding his head, provoked much comment.
In Futuna, he was filmed clapping himself when his name was announced. This turned out, however, to be required by local custom.
From the day of his inauguration in May 2012, when he was drenched on an open-topped car on the Champs-Élysées, Mr Hollande’s presidency has been associated with rain. Last Sunday he arrived in Tahiti – an island famed for its perfect climate – to a torrential downpour.
Otherwise, there has been little public complaint about Mr Hollande’s world trip (which included “two Mondays” because he crossed the international date line).
The centre-right newspaper Le Figaro, which detests Mr Hollande, pointed out that he was by far the most travelled French president. Apart from his visits to “global France”, he has made 176 trips to 71 countries in the past four years.
However, there has been no suggestion, even by Le Figaro, that the visits to France “d’outre-mer” are a distraction or a waste of money. A Socialist deputy told The Independent: “It might seem crazy to travel so far when we have terrible problems at home, but attacking France d’Outre‑Mer is one of the great taboos in French politics. It is like the nuclear deterrent – something which represents our lingering importance and world role.”
Belonging to France also remains, for the most part, popular in the overseas departments and territories themselves. Although all are poorer than metropolitan France (the part in Europe), they are significantly richer than their nearest neighbours thanks to investment from Paris – and, through EU grants, from Brussels.
The political exception is Nouvelle-Calédonie, which is prosperous but has a strong independence movement. The archipelago will hold a referendum to decide its future by 2018. Which means France may be Australia’s nearest neighbour to the east for only a little while longer…
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