SHARE
COPY LINK

FRENCH HISTORY

The tiny island that is Spanish for half the year, and French the other half

Did you know that there's an island that is French for half the year and Spanish the other half? Not only that, it has a particularly bizarre history involving princess-swaps and hostage-handovers. Welcome to 'Pheasant Island'.

The tiny island that is Spanish for half the year, and French the other half
Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

Most of the border between France and Spain is a land border, running through the Pyrenees and decorously diverging when it gets to Andorra.

But the northern-most portion of the border, which takes in the Basque Country, runs down the centre of a river. In the middle of this river is a very small island – 200 metres long, 40 metres wide, population 0.

Map showing the French town of Hendaye, the Spanish town of Irun and between them, right on the Franco-Spanish border, ‘pheasant island’. Map: Google maps

Despite being tiny, it has five different names; Île des Faisans or Île de la Conférence if you’re speaking French, Isla de los Faisanes in Spanish or in the Basque language either Konpantzia or Faisaien Uhartea Konferentziako Uhartea. All of these translate to either ‘pheasant island’ or ‘conference/treaty island’.

Fun fact: there are no pheasants on pheasant island (the name is believed to be a mis-translation). And at 0.00682 km square it’s unlikely to have much of a future as a conference centre. 

The reason we’re talking about this island is its unique nationality status – from February 1st to July 31st each year the island is part of Spain, then on August 1st it becomes French and remains so for the next six months.

So how did it end up with this weird status? Especially as, a little further up the river is the larger island of Isla Santiagourra – in this case the border simply goes round the island, which is Spanish 365 days a year.

The 1856 Treaty of Bayonne which formalised its hybrid status stated that “Pheasant island, to which so many historical memories common to the two Nations are attached, will belong, undivided, to France and Spain”.

International treaties of this period aren’t exactly famous for careful consultation with locals and the island is, as we already mentioned, uninhabited. There’s no contemporaneous explanation of exactly why it was felt so important to respect “historical memories” but it could simply that no-one could be bothered to argue over this tiny lump of land, or that it was handy to have a ‘neutral space’ along the border.

The island came to prominence 200 years earlier when the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed there, bringing an end to decades of war between France and Spain and establishing the Franco-Spanish border (and giving the island its secondary title of ‘treaty island’).

It remained for decades a ‘neutral’ space that was often used as a handover spot by the French and Spanish, but the rotating nationality was only formally established by the 1856 Treaty. 

The treaty also appointed two viceroys to run the island – the naval commanders of San Sebastian (Spain) and Bayonne (France), which gives the island its further distinction of having the only French example of the quasi-royal title of viceroy – the term comes from the French vice-roi meaning someone who deputises for the king.

In reality, it is administered by the mayor of Irun during its Spanish phase and the mayor of Hendaye during the French phase.

Talking of royalty, the island has an especially royal history – and long before the treaty that cemented its special status it was used as a meeting place for royals from France and Spain.

In 1659, Louis XIV met his future wife Maria Theresa of Spain at the island. Relevant paperwork signed, she said goodbye to her father Philip IV of Spain and crossed into France to become his queen.

In 1721, Louis XV met his intended bride Mariana Victoria of Spain there, this time however the meeting was less successful and the two ended up marrying other people.

The bride-swapping went both ways – Elisabeth of France, daughter of Henri IV, met her future husband Philip of Spain on pheasant island.

And it’s not just women who were traded there – children were too.

In 1526 François I, who was being held hostage by Spanish king Charles V, was taken to the island where he was swapped for his two eldest sons. The boys lived as hostage as the Spanish court for four years, until the French royals agreed to pay an enormous ransom. The scene of the handover? Pheasant island, naturally. 

The island is uninhabited with no regular transport there – so if you want to visit, you will need to wait for the next Journée du patrimoine (heritage open day) when the island is, sometimes, open to the public. 

Pheasant Island is not the only weird, quasi-royal space on the Franco-Spanish border – there is of course also the principality of Andorra, which is (nominally at least) ruled jointly by the French president and the Bishop of Urgell – they rule as ‘co-princes’ which means that, technically Emmanuel Macron is a prince.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Which side would Le Pen be on in World War III? French history gives a clue

When I interviewed Marine Le Pen a decade or so ago - writes John Lichfield - I asked her a would-be clever question: 'If you had been alive in June 1940, who would you have supported, Charles de Gaulle or Marshall Pétain?'

OPINION: Which side would Le Pen be on in World War III? French history gives a clue

She hesitated (considering all sides of the trap) but then said: “My instinct would have been to be with De Gaulle and the Resistance”.

Le Pen rapidly changed the subject. She didn’t want to dwell on the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Instead, she made a spurious comparison with the alleged 21st century “occupation” of a handful of French streets for Friday Muslim prayers.

All the same, it was telling reply. She had repudiated her father, Jean-Marie, and other founders of the Front National who detested De Gaulle and sympathised with the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime.

To relaunch and expand the family business, Marine Le Pen realised that she must abandon her father’s implied but never-quite-stated belief that “The Wrong Side” had triumphed in 1945.

Le Pen has since gone much further in de-toxifying the Front National, including changing the party’s name to the Rassemblement National and ditching her papa completely

In France, however, history is buried in shallow graves. World War Two caught up with Marine Le Pen last week.

President Emmanuel Macron had suggested that she should, in all decency, stay away from the state ceremony for the transfer of the remains of a foreign-born, Communist, Resistance leader to the Panthéon, the resting place of France’s official heroes and heroines.

Missak Manouchian, arrested and executed in February 1944, was a one-man affront to the founding genes of the RN, ex-FN. He was a Communist who led a resistance-cell largely composed of Jews. He was an immigrant who gave his life for his adopted country while the ideological ancestors of the ultra-nationalist Le Pen collaborated with the invaders.

READ ALSO Who was Missak Manouchian and why is he important to foreigners in France?

Like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty, Marine Le Pen insisted on going to the Panthéon all the same. She had, she said, the same duty as any other party leader to attend a ceremony for a national hero (even if he was a lefty immigrant).

By a quirk of events, the murder in prison of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny simultaneously confronted Le Pen with another question. On whose side would she be on in World War Three?

Marine Le Pen is a long-standing admirer of Vladimir Putin. Her party was until recently his client for a €6 million loan.

During the 2017 French election, a young Russian artist presented her with a triple portrait of startlingly vulgar post-Soviet kitsch. It showed three blonde, Aryan heroes gazing portentously into the distance – Putin, herself and Donald Trump.

The RN made a great fuss of the painting at the time. Little has been seen of it recently.

Since the second Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago, Le Pen has distanced herself from Putin. The RN paid off its loan last year (and took out another one with a bank linked to the pro-Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban).

Like Donald Trump, however, Le Pen remains unwilling to break with the Kremlin completely. There was something sickeningly limp about Marine Le Pen’s statement on the murder of Navalny last week.

“I learn of the death of Alexei Navalny, a political activist engaged in the defence of democracy,” she wrote. “My condolences to his loved ones and his political family.”

No outrage. No mention that he died in a punishment camp in Siberia. He might have been an obscure old man who had died at home.

Contrast the statement by her young party president and de facto Number Two, Jordan Bardella.

“Alexei Navalny died in an Arctic prison where he was serving 19 year sentence for opposing the regime. This is tragic news for all defenders of human rights and fundamental liberties”.

That statement also stinks of hypocrisy. RN members in the European Parliament, including Bardella, have consistently failed to support motions condemning Navalny’s persecution. The Rassemblement National is keen to dismantle human rights in France and the EU.

But at least Bardella was prepared temporarily to put aside the latent Putinolatory of much of French far and hard-right and speak of an act of authoritarian wickedness.

At the time of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion last year, Bardella had already tried to toughen the party’s weaselly words on Putin’s responsibility. He was slapped down by Le Pen.

Despite his vacant boy band good looks, he is a clever young man. He no doubt sees Marine’s reluctance to break completely with the Kremlin in the same way that she once saw her father’s refusal to repudiate Vichy – an irritating PR obstacle in the march to power.

France and Europe may not face World War Three in the near future but we do face a long and painful struggle to continue support for Ukraine. The quislings and the Vichy-sympathisers are already amongst us. Not all the pro-Putin readers’ comments in Le Figaro come from Russian troll factories.

On whose side will Le Pen and Bardella be when difficult choices are needed in the months ahead?

In World War Two those who had brayed most about love of patrie and the ‘foreign menace’ proved to be those most willing to collaborate with and exploit foreign occupation.

Le Pen has stolen a march on them. She has shown herself willing to collaborate with Putinism in advance.

SHOW COMMENTS