St Pierre and Miquelon is a tiny French territory (a “territorial collectivity” in administrative parlance) located rather improbably off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland, where Fortune Bay meets the wider Atlantic. France’s Caribbean territories are better known than St. Pierre and Miquelon; few seem to have heard of the archipelago. And because it sits off Canada, people often assume that the islands’ Frenchness is linguistic, not territorial; that the islands are a francophone bit of Canada and not a constituent part of the French state.
I have wanted to visit St. Pierre and Miquelon for as long as I can remember. Each time I tried to put together an itinerary I was scared off by exorbitant airfares. This is in large part due to the transportation monopoly imposed by Air Saint-Pierre, the only airline flying to the territory. When I lived in New York it was cheap to get to Montréal but then super expensive to fly from there to St. Pierre. It was only from St. John’s that flights to St. Pierre were reasonable, yet it was typically very expensive to get to St. John’s from New York. The same dynamic materialised after I moved to London, just with dramatically more expensive flights.
And then in 2016, the Canadian no-frills low-cost airline WestJet began to fly between various Canadian cities and London, and suddenly everything fell into place. My transatlantic ticket set me back £392 and my Air Saint-Pierre ticket cost €246, which by my estimate is a savings of around €900 (or £820 or so) from what it would have cost before WestJet entered the market. Here I have to pause to recognise that this is, in fact, how I often end up visiting places I have long pined after – once the low-cost airlines move in.
On the Air Saint-Pierre plane from St. John’s I meet a woman from Strasbourg whose father was born on St Pierre. She’s come for three weeks to spend time with her grandmother. “Are you going to Miquelon as well?” she asks. I tell her that I am. “Good. St Pierre can be hard to penetrate. Miquelon will feel more open.” As we talk the plane lowers its landing gear and she twitches, looking panicked. Outside the fog is thick. Two peaks rise from the fog, disarmingly close. We talk for another few seconds and then I see the ground, more or less precisely at the moment we land. Her name is Lize. I knew I would see her again – on an island of 6000, visitors tend to find each other. After passing through immigration I watch her bound toward a circle of people, all bundled up. It may be June but it is cold: 4 degrees, according to the posted temperature, and fogged in.
St Pierre and Miquelon is France. Its currency is the euro. A member of the National Assembly for St Pierre and Miquelon sits in Paris; there is also a single Senator for the territory. France imposes a grid of standardization on its overseas territories that makes them immediately recognizable as France. In most of overseas France, you can’t ever forget that you are in France – the bakeries produce exceptional croissants, the street signage is uniform, the supermarkets are full of French products, the attitudes, with local adjustments, are French. I have now traveled to all of the French Caribbean, to French Guiana, to Réunion, Mayotte, and New Caledonia. It’s hard to find a bit of these places that is not recognizably France.
There are exceptions. There are some towns in French Guiana rubbing up against the Amazon that feel less obviously like France. (French Guiana itself has such a hostile, unforgiving geography that its territory often feels remaindered, forgotten.) Another is Mayotte, where a widely practiced syncretic Islam sets its islands apart from mainland France – and whose poverty reflects historical neglect at the hands of the metropole. But by and large single one of these territories truly feels like France. This is why, for example, Canadian and American travel writers will laud the boulangeries of St Pierre, and celebrate their baked goods with a kind of dumbstruck joy: France in North America!
Yet I discover that St Pierre is actually at deep odds with its Frenchness. People are sturdy, mostly descendants of fishermen from Brittany, Normandy, and the Basque Country, the flags of which regions appear on the unofficial St Pierre and Miquelon flag. Their culinary tastes are solid, not trendy. “Somebody opened a pintxos restaurant,” offered the waitress at a crêperie. “But it wasn’t popular. It just wasn’t part of the local culture.” She herself hails from Bayonne in France’s tiny Basque triangle, and she always seems to have a faint, bemused smile on her face, as if she hasn’t quite managed to figure out why she is living here.
Since the 1870s the population of St Pierre and Miquelon has ranged between 4000 and 7000. For long stretches of its history, the fishing industry – since a 1992 court decision all but wiped out – and alcohol smuggling during the US Prohibition years, lifted the economy. Today government jobs provide the most stable incomes; many of these jobs are contract-based, employing workers on temporary assignments from the metropole. Visiting police live in a shiny modern building at odds with the rest of the town of St Pierre. The population doesn’t rise because most young people leave, and the absence of a dynamic industry has left the population frustrated and instinctually left-wing. This is Mélenchon country. The far-left, anti-EU firebrand came in first in the first round of the presidential election in May.
But it’s also, in slightly greater numbers than the French average, Le Pen country. Marine Le Pen visited St Pierre in March 2016, tacking on a quick visit to the territory to an official EU trade visit to Quebec, which she fulfilled as an MEP. The reception she received – in distinction to her experience in Quebec, where the establishment shunned her – was not altogether bad, and it has allowed her to occupy in the minds of locals a more important structural position in French politics than she actually has. One local, recounting the various politicians who have visited St Pierre, said “Le Pen came, you know, the lady,” before complaining that Macron had never visited – Macron, who had just won the presidency a few weeks prior. Perhaps it is fair to say that St Pierre is not the sort of place that instinctively warms to a precocious, super talented banker turned president.
“We are like the French Newfies,” a young hotel receptionist tells me. I recoil; France is France. But clearly there is something to his self-assessment. Much of the food comes from Canada; the huge supermarket, an all-purpose megastore that sells a massive range of consumer goods, is supplied in large part by Sobey's, a Canadian supermarket chain. Most of its goods are North American, not French. It is reminiscent of similar stores in remote, northern places. Houses smell like North American houses, people – especially the men – dress like North American men, and even the cigarette smoke smells like North American cigarette smoke. People drive North American cars – pick-up trucks and SUVs – and they drive them quickly and loudly down the narrow streets. Many of these have been purchased in Canada and brought over. (This is an expensive operation, but it is much cheaper than buying a car within the territory.)
For three days the fog remains low. I cannot see the peaks above the town; I can barely see to the end of the town’s streets, or far above the low buildings. The streets of St Pierre are on an incline; in the cold, low fog, the wind piercing in early June, the sky feels compressed. The doors of the wooden houses, most in dramatic, splashy colours, are closed. The owner of my gîte is helpful if taciturn. Breakfast sits on her kitchen table in a basket: one croissant, two slices of baguette, one pain au chocolat. Butter and confiture in glasses. American drip coffee in a thermos. There’s not an egg or a slice of smoked salmon in sight. She scrolls Facebook on her tablet. The television is on but we sit mostly in silence, breaking for conversations in a warped, pidgin English-French.
The tiny Cessnas that fly between St Pierre and Miquelon do not take off in the fog, so I cancel my reservation and book a ferry to Langlade. The tourist office takes care of this for me. The staff are efficient and good at English. They also book a gîte for me. The ferry motors near the island and then we are all don safety vests and are helped into a Zodiac and brought to the beach. We stumble ashore, some more gracefully than others. The owners come and pick me up in Langlade, driving me 25 kilometers from wet Langlade to their little house in the village of Miquelon. This road is unpaved in places; in others it follows the beach itself. A big friendly dog prods my hand from the back seat. I sleep in the basement. My room has an enormous yin-yang symbol on the wall. They built this house thirty years ago. They tell me that land is cheap in Miquelon but pretty much everything else is expensive – house construction materials, food. They watch Quebecois and French television.
Miquelon resonates more deeply with me. It is a desolate, quiet town consisting more or less of two roads. It is lonely and it never allows you to forget this, but the skies are big and claustrophobia is the last thing on your mind. The island’s little village also boasts the technologically up-to-date Maison de Nature, a beautiful multi-media museum devoted to the natural environment of the territory. It just opened this year, and it is truly grand – projections on maps in relief, a section devoted to the smells of the archipelago, a long video with locals talking about the fragility of the local nature.
On Miquelon I hike around the northern cape of the island. The land is lying in wait for summer, marshy, not yet fulsome. It is magical, like other places I've been in the north that are anticipating summer – its wooded areas, its scrub, the clean air, almost painful to breathe. When the gîte owners drive me back to Langlade I see stickers for Marine Le Pen on the back of street signs.
Back on St Pierre I take a gregarious tour guide up on his offer of a tour. He introduces me to the traditional food of St Pierre. We eat tuna pâté (canned tuna with boiled potatoes, mayonnaise, ketchup, and shallots), duck pâté, foie gras and bean pâté, dried fish, and a super rich île flotante, merengue laced with hard caramel, bobbing in cream. We drink a fine red wine and a sweet local birch beer. Everything is hearty and delicious. He shows me the port, various coves, and much of the island. His English is great – he lived in Canada for many years – and I ask many questions. It is, I realise, the first time I've talked with anyone in any depth in five days.
I board the plane the next day, realizing slowly the oddest thing. I have not once seen Lize. The island really does keep itself indoors. It is, as she said, hard to penetrate.