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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 17:18 GMT
French islands bid for oil-rich sea
By Bill Law
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

The French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon in the North Atlantic are fighting for a slice of oil-rich ocean floor they believe was taken from them, but their struggle could land France in rough diplomatic waters.

St Pierre and Miquelon
The islanders are angry their government has not protected them

Stepping out of a small plane onto the tarmac, a vicious wind hits you first.

It is the tag end of a North Atlantic gale and it slashes at you until you reach the sanctuary of the airport. Once inside, you notice the tricolour and the French immigration officials.

A quick question, a stamp on the passport and a wave through customs. This is the formality of entering France in North America.

Lying just off the south-eastern coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, St Pierre and Miquelon are tiny islands that represent a past most people have forgotten and a present with a very uncertain future.

The original French settlers were Basques, Bretons and Normans who arrived here in the 1600s. For centuries they fished the Grand Banks where the supply of cod was seemingly inexhaustible.

All that came to an abrupt end in 1992, when the Canadian Government, appalled at the destruction of cod stocks by foreign trawlers, banned all cod fishing.

The 'baguette'

A view of the sea from St Pierre with Miquelon in the distance
The baguette is a thin slice of ocean south of the islands

That same year - a year of infamy as far as the islanders are concerned - the Canadians hammered home their intention to protect and exploit the coastal waters.

At an international tribunal in New York, sitting across the table from a French delegation, they successfully laid claim to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone.

St Pierre and Miquelon were left with their own 200 mile zone, but bizarrely it is just 10 miles wide, a long thin finger of ocean running due south of the islands and leading nowhere.

It was quickly dubbed "the baguette" by bitter islanders.

The ocean floor off Newfoundland and St Pierre and Miquelon, part of the continental shelf extending from Canada, is called the sub-Laurentian basin.

It is rich in hydrocarbons, with estimates of some six trillion cubic feet of gas and six to seven billion barrels of oil.

As new technologies come on stream and instability increases in other oil-producing regions of the world, the Sub-Laurentian basin is becoming an increasingly important energy source.

The Canadians appreciated the huge potential for the development of offshore oil and gas. The French - it seems - did not.

Economic woes

To this day, the islanders remain angry at the failure of their government to protect them.

A worker at Bruno Detcheverry's fish processing plant
Far fewer people are now employed in fish processing
Bruno Detcheverry runs a fish processing plant that used to employ 350 people. Now he has just 70 part-time workers.

He says that what happened in 1992 was "a tragedy, like a guillotine coming down".

"Before there was work for many, and many fishing vessels. After, there was no work. The harbour is finished and the economy is finished."

Later this spring, a fourth offshore well will go into production in Canadian controlled waters.

The once have-not province of Newfoundland has in the past few years begun to emerge from poverty into a potential that is rich in oil and gas.

All the islanders can do is sit and watch - unless a bold initiative by St Pierre and Miquelon to take control of a piece of the continental shelf sitting outside the 200-mile zone and disconnected to the baguette succeeds.

Territorial bid

Gerard Grignon (left),  island Deputy to the National Assembly in Paris
Canada cannot do anything in these waters until it is resolved
Gerard Grignon, deputy to the National Assembly in Paris
Fittingly, it is called the leapfrog. There is no precedent for it.

"Canada and France only have one solution, either negotiate or go to an international tribunal," says Gerard Grignon, the island deputy to the National Assembly in Paris and the front man for the proposal.

"Canada cannot do anything in the disputed waters until it is resolved. The Canadians will be forced to come to a resolution with France."

Unsurprisingly, the Canadian Government has already dismissed the bid.

More surprisingly, perhaps, is the lack of support from Paris.

"If Paris is interested enough then it is up to them to start some concrete negotiations," says Dr Felix Park, Canada's honorary consul. But, he said, Paris "hasn't been listening for a long time."

That is because the French are anxious to maintain good trade relations with Canada and backing the bid from St Pierre would make for rough diplomatic waters.

Lost pride

What France has done is pump massive subsidies, 60 million euros a year, into the economy to keep it going.

A statue of a sailor on St Pierre
The islands have suffered economically in recent times
Subsidies pay for a huge programme of public works projects and roughly 1000 civil servants who administer them. This, for a population of 6,500. Without the subsidies, the economy would collapse.

But the subsidies have encouraged an environment where work projects are the order of the day and favouritism in the awarding of contracts is rife.

Felix Park is married to a St Pierrais and has lived on the islands on and off, for nearly 40 years.

"Look around at the port, the streets, the faces of the population," he says. "There's a vacuum and the people sense this. The majority of the people are not producing. A sense of pride has been lost."

For the islanders, intensely proud and resourceful, to find themselves dependent on government largesse is frustrating.

But when they look across the water and see what oil and gas are doing for Newfoundland, the frustration deepens.

Only the leapfrog, they believe, gives them reason to believe they have a viable economic future. But without support from Paris they see that dream receding.

Gerard Grignon insisted there is what he calls "a great opportunity for France to win back what was lost in 1992".

For Mr Grignon, the failure to do so means only one thing: "In 15 or 20 years the French presence here, which has been on these islands for hundreds of years, will disappear."

Map of disputed waters


BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 9 March, 2006, at 1102 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 13 March, 2006, at 2030 GMT.

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08 Mar 06 |  Crossing Continents
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