French Overseas Possessions — History and Culture
Having been claimed by France from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the French Overseas Possessions adopted many of their traditions, language and in many cases, French cuisine. Today, many of the possessions have largely gained autonomy, but the cultural stamp is still evident, making a unique experience for visitors.
The French Overseas Possessions all started as a set of territories under the French Colonial Empire, second only to the British Empire in terms of size during the 19th and 20th centuries and extending more than 4,767,000 square miles (at least one-tenth of the world’s total land area).
In its fight for supremacy over Britain, France established colonies throughout the world, including different areas in the Caribbean and North America, as well as in India. However, France lost a series of wars against Britain, which ended its colonial ambitions in certain regions.
The 19th century saw the rise of French expansion in different areas of Southeast Asia and Africa. It was during this period that Jules Ferry declared superiority of the higher races over the lower classes, and thus their "duty to civilize the inferior." What was largely viewed as a moral crusade around the world was actually a plot to establish a new empire.
After WWII, anti-colonial movements started questioning French authority over certain territories, and by the end of the 1960's, a number of French colonies claimed independence. Some remained as overseas territories and departments, thus forming the French Overseas Possessions of today. These consist of islands and archipelagos with varying levels of autonomy and political representation.
While French norms and traditions are widely observed, the local culture is still largely affected by each territory’s geographical position. A majority of the population adhere to Roman Catholic beliefs, except in Tahiti where there are more Protestants than Catholics. Each region has its own distinct set of languages in addition to French. The territories mostly have a relaxed and generally informal island atmosphere though modesty in clothing should be observed, even in beach areas.