In 1760 the French surrendered Montréal to the British, signalling the end of their North American empire. Sort of. Unbeknown to millions of North Americans and Europeans, the tiny archipelago of St-Pierre et Miquelon, 20km off the coast of the Burin, has remained a self-governing overseas territory of France (officially a collectivité d’outre-mer since 2003). French law applies, French is the official language and despite its location, the euro is the official currency. The French connection pulls in several thousand visitors each year, especially charmed by the high-quality French cuisine on offer (aided by duty-free imports from the motherland – forget those Canadian fruit or “ice” wines here), and the sheer novelty of a European enclave in North America. The main settlement, Ville de St-Pierre, is crammed with fine restaurants and simple guesthouses with a genuinely Gallic flavour, and all but seven hundred of the seven thousand islanders live here, with the remainder on Grande Miquelon island to the north. The third and middle island, Langlade, or Petite Miquelon, has just a scattering of houses and is only inhabited in summer. When planning your trip, note that everything closes between noon and 2pm every day, and all day Sunday (much is closed on Saturday also).
The Portuguese stumbled across the archipelago in 1520, but it was Jacques Cartier who claimed it for the French in 1536. Subsequently settled by fishermen from the Basque provinces, Normandy and Brittany, the islands were alternately occupied by Britain and France until the British ceded them to the French in 1763. The Brits continued to invade the islands however (and deport the locals), whenever war with France loomed, until Napoleon was beaten in 1815 – the following year the French returned to St-Pierre and were left alone thereafter.
After World War I, the French colonial authorities wanted to expand the local fishing industry, but their efforts became irrelevant with US Prohibition in 1920. Quite suddenly, St-Pierre was transformed from a maritime backwater into a giant transit centre for smuggling booze, thanks to Al Capone and Bill McCoy. It was an immensely lucrative business, but when Prohibition ended thirteen years later the St-Pierre economy collapsed. More misery followed during World War II, when the islands’ governor remained controversially loyal to the collaborationist Vichy regime. Both the Canadians and the Americans considered invading, but it was a Free French naval squadron that got there first, crossing over from their base in Halifax and occupying the islands in late 1941 without a shot being fired.
Since then, the St-Pierrais have remained largely loyal to France, and they certainly needed the support of Paris when the Canadians extended the limit of their territorial waters to two hundred nautical miles in 1977. The ensuing wrangle between Canada and France over the islands’ claim to a similar exclusion zone was finally resolved in 1994, although the tightening of controls on foreign vessels has largely ended St-Pierre’s role as a supply centre. Today the island is slowly diversifying its economy into tourism and crab fishing, with the assistance of vast amounts of cash from the French government. The permanent population is mostly of Basque, Breton, Norman and Acadian descent.