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Protests In French Guiana Highlight Economic Inequality And Lack Of Growth

Ariane launched from the Guiana Space Centre near Kourou.

The independence movements that swept Africa, Asia and Latin America after World War II failed to inspire the people of French Guiana toward similar action. Even when neighboring Guyana separated from the United Kingdom in 1966 and Suriname became independent of the Netherlands in 1975, French Guiana elected to stay as part of France.

In a 2010 referendum, the people of French Guiana once again voted against further autonomy.

Yet, French Guiana has been dealing with tensions that have erupted between various communities, that have been exacerbated by economic difficulties and a significant rise in crime.

The economic troubles are having varying effects, depending on what group people belong to. There are people of European ancestry or those born notably in France, that are least effected by the latest crisis.

Other populations have suffered far greater. These include descendants of African slaves, indigenous peoples, and more recently immigrants from Brazil, Haiti and Suriname.

Geographic map of French Guiana.

Both the region and the department have been ruled since December 2015, by a single assembly within the framework of a new collectively. It is known as French Guiana Territorial Collectivity.

The French Guiana Assembly has replaced both the former regional council and department council, which have been disbanded.

The French Guiana Assembly is in charge of the regional and departmental government. The President is Rodolphe Alexander.

Fully integrated into the French central state, Guiana is part of the European Union. The official currency is the Euro. The region is considered to be one of the most prosperous in South America. It has the highest GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita.

A large part of the economy of Guiana, is derived from the presence of the Guiana Space Centre, which has become the European Space Agency’s main launch site near the equator.

Rodolphe Alexandre

French Guiana is rich in natural resources. There are abundant deposits of gold and off shore oil reserves, as well as the largest forests in France.

Self government was clearly not the issue, when on March 20 of this year, French Guianans began going on strike, in the coastal city of Kourou. The immediate cause was the privatization of a hospital run by the Red Cross.

Workers from an engineering firm and a local energy utility, began blocking roads to the nearby Space Centre.

There were also claims of general insecurity felt by many citizens. The murder rate for example, is now the highest in France.

Forested landscape of Remire-Montjoly.

The protesters also claimed they were demonstrating due to the lack of economic resources and infrastructure in French Guiana. The lack of jobs and high living costs, have made life challenging in the department.

The infrastructure in French Guiana is totally inadequate. Although there are two main roads that connect the principal urban areas along the coast, further inland there is very little maintenance of any kind of transport.

The educational system is abysmal. Schools are overcrowded, with antiquated and run down buildings and facilities. Teaching quality is questionable and near 50% of students leave school, without a diploma.

French Guiana on a global map of South America

French Guiana has been dealing for years with tensions that have erupted between various communities that have been exacerbated by economic difficulties and a significant rise in crime.

Within days, disturbances were reported in Maripasoula, Papaichton, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, and even in the capital of Cayenne.

By March 23, the University of French Guiana, schools, administrative buildings and the nearby harbor were forced to close.

As street crime began to escalate, French Guianans responded by stocking up on basic necessitates and hoarding supplies. By the end of the first week in April, supermarkets had run out of fresh products, due to roadblocks being set up in strategic areas. Flour, milk, meat and even bottled water were no longer available.

Aerial view of Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.

March 28, 2017 witnessed the largest demonstrations ever seen in the territory. It was to be a dead day with everything shut down. Most businesses were being forced to close.

There were somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 street protesters in the capital that day. Numbers of 3,500 to 4,000 were also reported in the city of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni.

The dissent and strikes are being led by the Collective of 500 Brothers to highlight a number of pressing issues which include the lack of internal security and the poor state of infrastructure in French Guiana.

Other issues that concern the group, is the inadequate access to health care, the rise in illegal gold mining and ongoing illegal immigration.

Cayenne Cathedral. Most inhabitants of French Guiana are Catholic.

In early April, rocket launches from the Guiana Space Centre were suspended. The protesters briefly occupied the premises, with demands to meet with the leadership of the facility.

By April 06, all flights out of French Guiana were canceled. The following day, the leadership of the demonstrators, were waiting to meet with the French Guiana Prefect Martin Jaeger. When the appointment was scrubbed, violent protests took place outside the prefecture building in Cayenne.

This in turn, finally forced French officials to take action. Tear gas was soon used by the police, with one of their number being injured. Later members of the Collective would visit him in the hospital, to seek some type of truce.

Victor-Schoelcher Square in Cayenne

The events in French Guiana had escalated, to becoming an issue in the French presidential election. The outgoing Socialist government of President Francois Hollande, would attempt to deal with the rising difficulties in the territory.

Center-right candidate Francois Fillon blamed the situation in French Guiana on the failed policies of Hollande, while far right Marie Le Pen, focused on the illegal immigration affecting the territory.

The original pledge offered by government officials in France proper of 1 billion Euros ($1.12 billion United States Dollar) (USD) for infrastructure had been turned down by the demonstrators.

Cayenne City Hall

Finally on April 21, the French government would sign an agreement with the protesters, authorizing an emergency relief of up to 2.1 billion Euros ($2.35 billion USD). The funds were to be used for education, increased security, healthcare and assistance to various businesses.

The following day the roadblocks would be removed and normal operations at the Kourou Space Center would resume.

However, the agreement did not prevent further the strikes and protests planned for May 01.

An infusion of additional cash, made as a concession by out of touch politicians in mainland France, will not make much of a dent in the vast problems that beset this overseas department.

French Guiana has the second highest poverty rate of the five overseas departments. The overall unemployment rate exceeds 20%. This is twice as high as mainland France. Youthful unemployment (those aged 18 to 25) remains above 40% as does the poverty rate.

Coat of Arms of French Guiana

The cost of living is higher than in mainland France, due to the need to import most goods. The economy is totally dependent on consumer items, made in Europe. Even wood is imported, despite the extensive forests. Much of these are part of a protected green zone, that allows the French government to use it for offsetting carbon emissions in Europe.

In addition, there is a large import tax on anything that is imported into the country by sea. European Union sanctioned tariffs with the neighboring countries of Brazil and Suriname are also in place. Food products as a result, are at least 45% higher than in mainland France.

The last year that trade statistics are available, indicate a huge imbalance. French Guiana exported the equivalent of $149 million USD. The total value of imports for that year, comes close to $1.4 billion USD.

A view of the Place de la Poste in the centre of Papaïchton

A further problem for French Guiana, is the rapid population increase. It has tripled since 1985, through a higher birth rate and partly because of a huge migration, from other countries in South America.

Mostly illegal immigration has taken place along unmanned borders, in the dense rain forest of the Amazon.

Due to the traditional higher standards of living in French Guiana, there was a surge of arrivals from Brazil and Suriname, beginning in the 1980’s.

Today near 43% of the population of some 257,000 is under 20, with little opportunity for employment. Foreign nationals make up 35% of the total populace versus just 6.5% in mainland France.

Carnival in Cayenne

As part of France, Guiana has become a major transit point for traffickers moving drugs from South America to Europe. The illegal trade in cocaine has been on the rise in recent years.

The number of drug carriers arrested, has more than doubled at the Cayenne airport since 2014.

It was reported in 2016 alone,a total 371 drug traffickers were apprehended on flights to Europe.

Domestically, the consumption of drugs is continuing to rise from already high levels.

Economic growth is the only solution, to solve the myriad of problems facing the department. Periodic infusions of additional cash from the mainland, will fail to provide the job opportunities, that are so desperately needed by the youth of Guiana.

View from the île Royale

There is a need for infrastructure improvements on the coast and further development in the interior. The under 10% of the population that still does not have full access to modern utilities, will continue to insist on greater connectivity.

The French government will eventually be forced, to create better enforcement of the border areas, to better get a handle on illegal migration into the country. This will also help to reduce the growing levels of crime, especially that part of it associated with the drug trade.

There is a small minority, that would rather put Guiana on a path to independence. Yet, the majority of the citizenry are quite aware, that economically it would not bring about better living standards nor greater economic growth. They would rather push for reform.

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