Situation report: Unrest in French Guiana

French Guiana is undergoing major unrest, bringing transport and commerce to a virtual standstill.

French Guiana's space centre
French Guiana’s space centre. Photo: Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com

 

Background

French Guiana is an overseas department and administrative region of France located on the north-eastern coast of South America. It is the only portion of mainland South America that has not attained independence from a colonial European power. The socio-economic indicators of the department contrast starkly with both its neighbours and the French mainland, albeit in different ways: while French Guiana is considerably safer, more prosperous, and more stable than much of Latin America, it is one of the poorest and least safe regions of France. Almost all of the population, slightly less than 245,000 people, is located along the northern coast, with the rest of the department being extremely sparsely populated remote jungle. In fact, nearly a third of French Guiana has been declared a national park and is off limits to development, and the majority of the department’s population live in the coastal city and departmental capital of Cayenne.

While French Guiana’s geography is varied, its economy is remarkably uniform: nearly 90 per cent of GDP comes from French government spending, much of it related to the Guiana Space Centre, which is jointly operated by the government of France and the European Space Agency. The centre’s location in Kourou is nearly ideal for such launches, as it is both closer to the equator and further away from any major metropolitan area than anywhere else in the European Union, making the launch of commercial satellites into space from the centre technically simplified and economically feasible, while ensuring that few people are in danger of being struck by falling debris such as the lower stages of the rockets.

Seeds of unrest

French Guiana’s limited economy presents few employment opportunities for its people, and approximately 22 per cent of the population is unemployed. The problem is significantly worse among the young: 46 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 are unemployed, which has helped contribute to crime rates well above those seen most other places in France.

Confronting crime is complicated by French Guiana’s status as a French department far removed from the mainland. A small contingent of France’s National Gendarmerie, the law-enforcement wing of its armed forces, is stationed in French Guiana to provide security, and a detachment of the French Foreign Legion, a semi-autonomous part of the French armed forces mostly recruited from non-French nationals, also maintains a presence in the department, although its efforts are often directed toward patrolling French Guiana’s extremely remote border and expelling illegal Brazilian miners.

The inability of the security forces to reduce criminality has led some ordinary civilians to don all-black clothing and masks in an attempt to intimidate criminals. The members of this movement, known as the Collectif des 500 Frères (‘Collective of the 500 Brothers’), claim not to be a vigilante militia but rather a mere group of concerned citizens who watch over otherwise high-crime areas. While many French Guianese support the ‘brothers’, their style of dress, which often includes not only masks that cover the face but also sun glasses to hide even their eyes, is alarming to others, and the group exists as an extra-constitutional crime-fighting force.

In addition to having more crime than the rest of France, French Guiana also has sub-standard public services, with the education and public health systems as well as the transportation network lagging far behind mainland France. This has created a situation in which many French Guianese feel neglected by the French government, despite the extremely high contribution of government spending to GDP. One demonstrator recently interviewed by the media certainly captured the resentment of many French Guianese when she said that as far as the French government is concerned, as long as rockets are launching from the space centre on time, all is well in French Guiana.

Major protest erupts

Protests in French Guiana

On 23 March, the ‘500 Brothers’ began carrying out significant protests against insecurity both in the streets of northern French Guiana and at the Cayenne-Félix Eboué Airport (CAY), the department’s only air link to the French mainland. Nearly simultaneously, members of the Union des Travailleurs Guyanais (‘Union of Guianese Workers’, UTG), a trades union centre that is composed of 37 unions, some of which have expressed sympathy for the minority of French Guianese who want independence from France, began walking off their jobs and setting up roadblocks. Rather than make traditional demands of their employees, the workers instead demanded a ‘Marshall Plan’ of French investment in French Guiana in order to further develop the region.

Among the protesting workers were employees of Endel, the space centre’s transportation and logistics contractor, which forced the cancellation of the launching of an Ariane 5 rocket that was to deliver two satellites – one Brazilian and one South Korean – into orbit. The protestors saw their ability to prevent the take-off of a rocket as a major success likely to force officials located in far-away Paris to address their concerns. Indeed, the view among protesters that the space centre must be negatively impacted if development is to come to French Guiana is seen in the tongue-in-cheek name of their ad hoc social movement, ‘Pou Lagwiyann dekolé’, Creole that roughly means ‘For Guiana Taking Off’.

The rocket was not the only thing the protests prevented from taking off – demonstrations and work stoppages at the airport in Cayenne have forced Air France to cancel its daily flights between French Guiana and Paris. Not wanting to lose credibility or relevance, the UTG leadership formalised the work stoppages by declaring an indefinite general strike on 27 March, several days after employees stopped working. The union and the ‘500 Brothers’ have jointly severed both land and air links between French Guiana and its neighboring countries, effectively isolating the territory.

Analysis

The protests and strikes have shown signs of widespread support, with much commercial and industrial activity coming to a halt due to workers respecting the strike, and protestors are likely correct in their belief that the disruption of operations at the space centre is one of the few ways to get the attention of French authorities who otherwise pay little mind to the far-flung department, especially given the current presidential campaign. Indeed, all of the candidates for the presidency have spoken about the unrest, with major candidate Emmanuel Macron widely mocked after he incorrectly called the department an island.

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