French Guiana has been paralysed for three weeks now, with protesters demanding that Paris provide more aid to develop France’s poorest region, which is lacking many basic services.
Guiana, which is on the north-eastern coast of South America, north of Brazil and next to Surinam, is 7,000 kilometres away from Paris. It is not just physically apart, but structurally, it lacks many of the basic services that French people expect.
The department, which is also a region, does not have enough schools and hospitals to serve the 250,000 people who live there.
Guiana is France’s poorest region. Per capita income is 15,000 euros, less than half of the average in mainland France. Unemployment is at 22 percent, a number that more than doubles to 46 percent for 15- to 24-year-olds.
“What’s happening in Guiana is symptomatic of the role of overseas departments in the French Republic,” political analyst Françoise Vergès told RFI.
Guiana is one of France’s five overseas departments, where people have a very different quality of life than in mainland France.
“This is 2017, and yet half of these territories’ populations live under the poverty level, there are high rates of unemployment, high rates of illiteracy,” says Vergès.
The protest movement started out with demands for tougher measures against crime. Crime rates in Guiana are well above French averages: there were 46 homicides in 2016.
But the movement has since grown, to address larger issues of discontent and inequality.
“France has not done anything to develop [these territories],” says Vergès, who is from Reunion Island, a French department in the Indian Ocean.
“The crisis in Guiana, like the crisis in Guadeloupe in 2009, are constant expression of deep discontent and distress with the French state,” says Vergès, referring to a general strike that shut down the French Caribbean island department of Guadeloupe in 2009.
A lack of respect
The organisers of the general strike have a list of 428 demands, including building schools and developing the economy. Because 90 percent of the department’s GDP comes from the government, they say it is up to the government to act.
However, Vergès says there is more than money at stake. Guiana’s post-colonial legacy means people are suffering from racism.
“Most of the people who are in power are white people from France,” she explains.
Local people who face the highest levels of unemployment and the lowest levels of education and healthcare are “people who are descendants of slaves, maroons, or indigenous people. And they are French citizens, but who are not treated like French citizens.”
It is not a surprise to her that a lot of the protesters speak about respect.
“This expression comes up all the time, in all the speeches,” she says. “And that says something.”
The population in Guiana appears to be united behind the protest movement, even if there is some disagreement over the barricades. Business owners are worried about the ongoing strike, even if they all agree that there are deep problems in the department.
Mikaël Mancée, a police officer who has emerged as a spokesperson for the protest movement, said Thursday that this is a long fight.
“This is not a sprint, it’s a long-distance race,” he said on local television Guyane 1ère. “Those who say that we’ll solve Guiana’s problems in two weeks are lying. We’ll take the time it needs to do it right.”
The conflict in Guiana comes during the French presidential election campaign, and many of the candidates have commented on the situation, though it is unclear what, if anything, they can do.
The biggest bargaining chip the protesters have appears to be the European Space Centre's Arianne rocket launch site in Kourou. The blockades have already delayed a rocket launch, and this might be the key to holding the attention of the authorities in the long term.