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Rockets in the jungle: Understanding French Guiana’s social unrest

Jody Amiet, AFP | An aerial view of Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.

The roots of the crisis paralysing France’s South American enclave are to be found in the distinctive history of this remote outpost of the French Republic, which once served as a tropical penal colony.


Wedged between Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean, the remote French département of Guiana, located some 7,000 kilometres from Paris, is a peculiar legacy of France’s colonial past. It is the second largest French administrative unit, after Nouvelle Aquitaine (in the country's southwest), but also one of the poorest: its per capita income of €15,000 is less than half the average on mainland France. The dearth of jobs and education prospects has pushed unemployment to record levels, particularly among young people. And with the territory’s already-high crime levels rising further, its disgruntled population is now up in arms.

Less than a month before France's presidential election, a general strike has paralysed Guiana for days, closing down its airport and postponing the planned launch of a rocket carrying communications satellites for Brazil and South Korea. On Tuesday, some 10,000 people marched in the territory’s main cities of Cayenne and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni – the largest protests ever witnessed in this enclave of 250,000 inhabitants.

According to Stéphane Granger of the Institute of Latin American Studies (IHEAL), who teaches in Guiana’s capital, Cayenne, the crisis sweeping the far-flung territory is rooted in its distinctive geography and history. “French Guiana has come a long way,” he told FRANCE 24. “It has been asked to accomplish in fifty years what mainland France took centuries to achieve.”

Gateway to hell becomes gateway to space

French Guiana’s lush vegetation and stunning beaches conceal a sinister history, which earned this French outpost the dreaded nickname of “Green Hell”. For close to a century, between 1852 and 1938, France used its South American enclave as a penal colony, first under Napoleon III and then under the Third Republic. Tens of thousands of convicts were sent to Guiana’s notorious jails, among them Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer who was wrongly accused of treason at a time of heightened anti-Semitism. The territory’s status as a prison, and the stifling tropical conditions, impeded the development of this former colony, which became an integral part of France in 1946 when it was elevated to the status of département.

It would be another 18 years before President Charles de Gaulle would make a trip to the remote outpost, where he proclaimed a new era of French engagement with its former colony. “Having invested great hopes in Guiana, France has (…) drifted away somewhat. That period is over,” said the World War II hero. A month later, de Gaulle gave birth to the Guiana Space Centre, destined to become “Europe’s spaceport”. The future launch pad for the Ariane rockets – the pride of Europe’s space industry – brought unprecedented job prospects to the territory, then home to just 35,000 people. While living conditions were inferior to those on mainland France, they proved highly attractive for wave after wave of immigrant workers from Brazil and Haiti, many of whom settled for good.

A regional magnet

While the immigration boom has slowed down over the last decade, this relatively poor outpost of Europe remains a magnet for many of its poorer South American neighbours. Foreign nationals account for 35 percent of its population, as opposed to 6.4 percent in mainland France. Yet the local job market and infrastructure have not been able to handle the influx, leaving essential services, such as hospitals and schools, severely overstretched. The ensuing social ills, coupled with the difficulties inherent to policing such a wide territory, have led to a surge in crime. With 42 homicides in 2016, Guiana has by far the highest murder rate of any French département.

All these factors underpin the exasperation now voiced by local citizens. “Violence does not have a religious connotation here,” said Guiana native Bernard Lama, a business owner and former goalkeeper for France’s national football team, referring to the threat of jihadist terrorism in mainland France. “Instead [the violence] is fuelled by the lack of resources dedicated to education and the high rate of youth unemployment,” he told French daily Les Echos.

Migration is not the only factor behind Guiana’s population boom. With 26 births per 1,000 inhabitants, the overseas territory has a birth rate more than twice as high as France’s national average – which is already the highest in Europe. The demographic surge could be contained “if the population had greater access to family planning and education”, said IHEAL’s Granger, noting that such facilities are often inaccessible to residents of shantytowns and isolated forest villages. Teaching methods, which mirror practices in mainland France, are sometimes ill-adapted to local needs, particularly those of indigenous communities that don’t share the same culture and may not speak French.

“Overseas territories are important to France, but their inhabitants are completely ignored,” argued historian and political analyst Françoise Vergès, lamenting the territories’ “structural backwardness”. She added: “There are many different languages and communities in Guiana. What prospects do the young have? How will they find their place in this world?”

‘Theatre of the absurd’

One of the main burdens for the people of Guiana is the high cost of living. The reliance on imports from Europe means food prices are particularly onerous. In one of the great paradoxes of life in the French enclave, cheaper products from neighbouring Brazil and Suriname are subjected to the crippling tariffs applied across the European Union, and thus largely inaccessible. Vergès describes this as a “theatre of the absurd with no end in sight”.

Its ranking among Europe’s poorer regions means French Guiana is also a beneficiary of EU funds, such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which has earmarked a total of €392 million for infrastructure and educational projects in the French overseas territory between 2014 and 2020. But Granger fears the EU’s recent expansion to include members poorer than Guiana will eventually lead to a decrease in subsidies. “Unless the Space Centre remains a credible bargaining chip,” he said, though cautioning that competition from burgeoning space programmes in China and Brazil may end up weakening French Guiana’s greatest asset.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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