French oberseas' beach and the horizon
11 June 2020

France’s underwater area is extending by more than 150,000 km2

France has been authorised to extend its continental shelf in respect of the Reunion, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam islands.
On 10 June 2020, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a specialist body of the United Nations, published recommendations authorising France to extend its continental shelf.

France is extending its continental shelf

With the CLCS recommendations, France’s underwater area has thus been extended by 151,323 km2 (58,121 km2 in respect of Reunion Island and 93,202 km2 in respect of the Saint-Paul and Amsterdam Islands), the equivalent of more than a quarter of the surface area of Mainland France. France’s continental shelf thus covers a surface area of 730,000 km2, in addition to the 10.2 million km2 of maritime zones under French law (inland waters and territorial sea) or jurisdiction.

In 2015, four decrees had officially established an initial extension of 579,000 km2 of France’s continental shelf in respect of Martinique, the French West Indies, French Guiana, New Caledonia and the Kerguelen Islands.

France may still lay claim to around 500,000 km2 of continental shelf under the submissions currently being considered or pending consideration by the United Nations.

continental shelf areas

Under the 1982 Montego Bay Convention (UNCLOS), coastal States may extend their continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. Such extension – up to nautical 350 miles (650 km) – only concerns the continental shelf, i.e. the seabed and subsoil, in the natural prolongation of the land territory, with the waters remaining under international jurisdiction. In that respect, it is different from the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), since this includes the water column.

In these continental shelf areas, coastal States avail of unlimited rights with regard to the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil. Moreover, the UNCLOS provides for the natural resources of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles to be shared with the signatory countries, particularly developing nations or those with no access to the sea.

Exploitation of these underwater areas is not on the agenda. That said, the CLCS recommendations do enable France to retain its rights for the future across sweeping underwater areas, including the possibility of protecting them in the event exploitation is not sought-after.

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