British and French Overseas Territories: a common colonial heritage for two political paths
Illustration by Edar from Pixabay

The second half of the 20th century witnessed many former colonies declaring their independence. This global phenomenon overshadowed the evolution of the territories that chose a different path. Nowadays, they are known as overseas territories. France and Britain, two large former colonial empires, are now the countries with the most such territories, respectively 13 and 14.

From colonies to overseas territories 

The end of the 1940s marked the beginning of a shift in the history of outer territories. When ultramarine soldiers who fought for France and Britain during the Second World War returned home, demands for change and equality became stronger than ever before.  From then on, many territories transitioned from being colonies to the new statute of “overseas territories”.

This transition also meant creating a new institutional relationship with their former coloniser. The year 1946 saw four of France’s oldest colonies (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, and French Guiana) officially become French departments (an administrative division).

Following this first step, the French Constitution of 1958 recognised all former colonies as overseas territories. A similar evolution can be observed in the UK. The  2002 Act officially states that the 14 territories remaining under British sovereignty are known as ‘British Overseas Territories’.

If one word could describe these regions, it would be diversity. Diversity in terms of political systems, population, location, culture, and history. Since every territory is unique, it is quite difficult to analyse them collectively.

Comparing how British and French Overseas Territories function gives us a better understanding of their origins, strengths, and weaknesses. This enables us to better grasp the challenges these often forgotten territories are facing.

One country, multiple systems?

Analysing constitutions is the key to understanding the political systems of overseas territories. Britain and France took different paths that conform to their traditional beliefs. France recognises unity by including them in its Constitution. They are first mentioned in articles 72-3 which state: “The Republic recognises, within the French people, the overseas populations in a common ideal of freedom, equality, and fraternity.”

The United Kingdom opted for a different system, more sensible to the diversity of its territories. As a result, each of the 14 British Overseas Territories possesses its own constitution. A majority of them were created with powers granted by Acts of the British Parliament and some contain identical provisions. It may seem like France chose unity while Britain recognises diversity. But on closer examination, unity can be found in the British system through similar constitutional provisions. Meanwhile, diversity exists within France’s Constitution since it introduces different statutes available for its territories.

Does the law differ in overseas territories?

For both French and British Overseas Territories, the law can be different from the one applied on the continent, but not under the same circumstances. Since British Overseas Territories usually have their own constitution, they are able to establish a political system and a procedure for creating laws. This freedom to legislate is not unlimited and its limitations are cause for criticism, which we will address later on.

For French Overseas Territories, the process is different. Overseas territories elect and send representatives to the French Parliament. Laws passed by Parliament and executive orders from the government are often directly applicable. To consider the special situation of its overseas territories, the French Constitution allows for adjustments when necessary. Depending on the constitutional statute chosen by the territory, some overseas territories own more freedom than others regarding these laws.

Economics models: to fund or not to fund?

Diversity remains the key word when dealing with economics in British and French Overseas Territories. When most French Overseas Territories have struggling and dependent economies, some of the British ones have managed to achieve economic prosperity while staying relatively independent from the UK. Examples of this phenomenon include, the Cayman Island and Gibraltar, whose Gross domestic product can compete with a few European nations. However, the economic success of these territories is often based on tourism or tax policy, both sectors which are unstable and not particularly suited to generate sustainable growth.

French Overseas Territories also face the same challenge, as their economic model relies heavily on funds provided by Government and the European Union. This economic dependency implies a significant amount of importation which results in lower living conditions than in continental France.

Yet this doesn’t mean independence is always a viable option. For many French territories, it would be complicated to continue to import so much without the funds transferred from metropolitan France. Thus, the question which matters is whether the territory could survive with its own resources, a difficult question to answer which is prone to debate.

One or multiple citizenships?

The law of the British Overseas Territories grants two citizenships to most of its population. The first, a British citizenship, and the second, a special citizenship designed specifically for each overseas territory.

France, faithful to its ideal of universalism, does not provide a particular citizenship for residents of its overseas territories. The Constitution of 1958 does recognise that part of the population has always had a special civil statute. Citizens were allowed to keep this statute in addition to their national citizenship. As a result, inhabitants of Mayotte were able to maintain their specific organisation of property. A system in which land property is collective and real estate ownership is mostly transmitted by women. 

The relics of colonialism

British and French Overseas Territories share a common history of colonialism. One can wonder how this colonial past might influence the present. In answering this question, the contributions of the post-colonial theory are relevant. Philipp Dann and Felix Hanschmann, two professors at the Humboldt University of Berlin stress that “post-colonial theories not only look backward to the past”, it also focuses on how the colonial past influences the present.

University of Derby Professor of Law Hakeem Yusuf and Queen Mary University of London Lecturer Tanzil Chowdhury argue that colonial governance is still being exercised on British territories. This is because some constitutional provisions “enable the United Kingdom to intervene in the domestic and external affairs of its overseas territories“.

Mathilde Cohen, Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut, sees a form of judicial colonialism in the French Overseas Territories. This is “characterized by a unitary judiciary overwhelmingly staffed by white metropolitan judges“. Post-colonial studies show how dynamics and patterns from their colonial past might continue to exist nowadays.

Both British and French Overseas Territories have been subjected to many challenges. Firstly, geographically, as small parts of a distant bigger unit. Then, politically, since they have to navigate between their will to self-govern and their relationship with the continental country. Thirdly, economically, as most of them have yet to see a development similar to their continental counterparts.

But ultimately, the greatest problem they are facing is the lack of attention they suffer from.