Protests and strikes in French Guiana struggle to gain Paris’s attention
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Amid increasing anger, the protest movement in French Guiana is growing. The French government has done little in response, risking further disruption in the French overseas territory.
The latest demonstration of anger finally caught the headlines.
During an international ecological conference in French Guiana on March 16th, dozens of protesters wearing black balaclavas managed to enter the hall and confront French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal about the crime rate.
The disturbance, dramatic but peaceful, alarmed some of the foreign delegations, prompting them to leave. Royale, who was scheduled to inaugurate a bridge linking the territory to Brazil, cut her visit short.
The group behind the action is called the ‘Collective of 500 Brothers’, a citizen’s collective that condemns the rising crime rate. The movement’s action on March 16 was intended to make their message heard in Paris, as well as locally.
"We had to demonstrate our willingness to confront the minister, and our having dared to go … sent a strong signal of our determination," said Olivier Goudet, President of Tròp Violans, a group affiliated with the ‘Collective of 500 Brothers’. “It was a call for help, not an act of aggression or a threat. We just had to expose our concern."
The murder capital
With 42 homicides in 2016, French Guiana has the highest murder rate than any other French domestic or international territory, prompting urgent calls for more state resources to combat this serious issue.
“There is practically one [murder] every week, not counting the assaults and robberies that happen every day. It’s worse than Marseille,” Goudet said.
At the end of February, when public support began mounting for the ‘Collective of 500 Brothers’ and Tròp Violans movements, the two groups sent local parliamentarians a list of their demands. The list included the inclusion of the territory in the ‘State of Emergency’ currently in effect in mainland France, the deportation of foreign criminals to their country of origin, and permanent surveillance of the borders with Suriname and Brazil.
“We don’t want to stigmatise anyone, but you cannot deny that in French Guiana there is complete chaos when it comes to immigration,” said Goudet, whose movement has been accused of xenophobia. However, Goudet dismissed these claims, “In our movement we have people of all origins, Surinamese, Brazilian, Haitian and also locals.”
Balaclava is 'our emblem'
Marching in balaclava-clad lines and shouting “Nou Bon Ké Sa” (We’re sick of it), the militants of ‘Collective of 500 Brothers’ say they serve as “watchmen.” Their actions -- often denounced -- are simply symbolic.
“The balaclava is just our emblem because it reflects what the victims of crime experience. Men wearing balaclavas are what those who are killed, beaten or assaulted see…When the authorities see us with these balaclavas, the point being that they should feel the same fear.”
Lack of security is not the only reason the citizens of French Guiana are exasperated. People agree with ‘Collective of 500 Brothers’ fury at the rundown hospitals and poor education system.
“French Guiana has been suffering in silence, but now it is expressing itself,” Gauthier Horth, opposition politician told FRANCE 24.
“Each year 6,500 young people enter the labour market, but there are only 2,000 jobs. We don’t have access to work, medical care or education. We are not equal to other French citizens,” said Horth, who added he has never seen such anger and public action in French Guiana.
The pinnacle of the protest movement came on Thursday when huge swaths of the French Guiana were paralysed. Checkpoints were set up along the main roadways blocking access to the capital city Cayenne, utility company workers went on strike, schools have closed until further notice and many businesses have closedtheir doors.
“The only thing Paris cares about is our Space Centre”
The highlight of the protest was the several drivers who stopped the transfer of the European Ariane 5 rocket to its launch pad. As a result, the launch of the rocket was postponed indefinitely.
“Successfully postponing the launch of Ariane is a response to the contempt of the French state.” Horth said.
“No government has ever wanted to address the issues affecting us. Paris’ only interest in French Guiana is the space centre. As long as the rockets take off, everything is fine.”
Confronted with the threat to aerospace activities, French Prime Minister Bernard Cazaneuve announced Friday that he would send an “inter-ministerial mission” composed of “top officials” to French Guiana.
The group will be tasked with “analysing all the issues raised and laying the foundation for negotiations that will lead to quick and effective measures,” Cazaneuve said.
The representatives of the various movements quickly made it known that they would not meet with the government delegation. Worse, the 37 unions that make up the Union of Guianese Workers (UTG) voted unanimously for a general strike, to start on March 27.
“We demand to meet with ministers,” Goudet said. “We will no longer accept this disdain. It is as though the government wants French Guiana to go up in flames.”
Horth agrees, saying: “There is a clear refusal to provide real concrete answers. But our message is clear: the Ariane rocket will not take off until we [the population] allow it. It’s Guiana’s turn to take off.”