France and Canada's Battle of the Sea

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Most of France's epic battles at sea have been waged against the historic enemy across the English Channel, but not this time: The French are currently preparing for mighty showdown with an altogether different foe — Canada, which is ready to take Paris to the mat over a territorial dispute in what Canadian officials say is their maritime backyard.

On March 25, almost two-and-a-half centuries after France ceded nearly all of its North American colonial possessions, the French government announced plans to petition the United Nations for extended rights to waters off the coast of eastern Canada claimed by Ottawa as its own. The reason for Paris' sudden interest in a swathe of under-sea territory off the continental shelf? The large oil and gas deposits there that both nations would like to exploit. Paris is filing its claim for a part of that prize on behalf of the 6,300 inhabitants of neighboring Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon archipelago — a French territory comprising three small islands just 16 miles south of Canada's Newfoundland and Labrador provinces. Not surprisingly, Canada has flatly rejected that idea. (See pictures of a Greenland odyssey)

"Canada will take all necessary measures to defend and protect its rights with respect to its continental shelf," declared Lawrence Cannon, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, after French Interior Minister Michéle Alliot-Marie announced that France will contest a 1992 U.N. arbitration of the dispute that found largely in Ottawa's favor. "Canada has made France aware of its position on several occasions."

So, why has France waited until now to appeal the 17-year-old ruling? In part because the deadline to contest it expires on May 13. But the French government is also responding to a campaign on the issue by Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon residents and their elected officials in Paris. They argue gaining a share of the offshore resources is the only manner of generating the revenues that dried up when the region's once-booming cod industry went bust in the early 1990s. They also point out the 1992 arbitration limited the island's offshore rights to a useless corridor 2.5 miles wide extending 200 miles out into the ocean, that locals call "la baguette".

"We don't want to go to war with Canada over this, and we're not demanding the entire, vast area be handed over to France," says Xavier Bowring, a member of the local association formed to lobby officials in Paris challenge the arbitration finding. "We're just asking for our fair portion of it — or Franco-Canadian joint exploitation of its resources — that will allow us to survive."

On the phone from the SPM Telecom company he runs in the archipelago's main town, Saint-Pierre, Bowring stressed he and other residents were well aware that Canada would get the lion's share of territorial rights even if France succeeded in having the finding renegotiated. However, he said inhabitants of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon have seen how offshore resources have made their neighbors in Newfoundland and Labrador wealthy in recent years, and want a piece of the action.

Canada, however, takes a dim view of the French claim to a share of the disputed area, which according to some estimates may hold 600-700 million barrels of recoverable oil. "Canada does not recognize France's claim to any area of the continental shelf in the northwest Atlantic Ocean beyond the area set out in the arbitration decision," Cannon warned.

Neither side wants the looming spat to create strains in their habitually warm relations. And because Bowring and his Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon peers say they're only after their proportional stake of the vast reserves, the French government could seek a deal in which they offer Canada lucrative import or other exchange concessions in exchange for a piece of the continental shelf. Helping the archipelago achieve a measure of self-sufficiency is certainly a matter of self-interest for France, whose government currently provides it around $133 million (or $ 21,000 per resident) in annual funding.

Canada, however, has plenty of reason to play hardball with France on the territorial tussle. On March 27, just two days after the French decision to appeal the U.N. decision, Russia announced it was ready to use force to back its claim to the resource-rich Arctic territories claimed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the U.S. The problem facing the resident of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon is that these days, nobody's in the mood to share any piece of the continental shelf.

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