French Guiana / Guyane Française - Politics

French Guiana, home to about 250,000 people, relies on large injections of public funds and residents say it is often overlooked by the French government. Its per capita income [some say €15,000, CIA said $8,297 in 2003] is less than half the average of mainland France.

The French government signed an agreement with protesters and local MPs in Guiana 21 April 2017 ending a vast protest movement that had paralysed the country for over a month. The agreement was signed in Cayenne between the government and representatives from Pou La gwiyann dékolé (Collective to Get Guiana Moving), the group that led a general strike on March 25 which caused unrest across the territory.

It authorises an emergency relief plan of up to 2.1 billion euros, which includes funds for security, education, healthcare and business aid. France had already approved 1.1 billion in aid for French Guiana at the beginning of April. The additional funds were offered to meet demands made by the collective and local representatives, who rejected the government’s initial offer.

France will prioritise the implementation of the spending plan. Locals had called for a "Marshall Plan" of French aid, along the lines of the huge US economic support given to help western Europe to recover after World War II, in a bid to revive the economy of the remote South American territory. France had initially balked at the demands for investment, with Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve calling them “unrealistic".

Nearly 10,000 people poured into the streets of the capital Tuesday 28 March 2017 in what local authorities called the largest march in the French territory’s history. The United States has a population just shy of a third of a billion people, so an equivalent size march in Washington would have numbered over 13,000,000, about five times the largest march in American history.

During during a whirlwind tour of France's overseas territories, on 26 March 2017 leading Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said French Guiana was an island. "My first response is a call for calm, because blocking the airport runways and takeoffs - and sometimes even blocking off the function of the island itself is not the response to the situation."

Protesters withdrew from the Kourou space launch space center on 05 April 2017 after the French government approved a one-billion-euro emergency package to quell a wave of strikes. The sum offered by France was below the 2.5 billion euros ($2.7 billion) that unions demanded to address what they say is decades of under-investment in the French territory in South America.

Around 30 protest leaders in French Guiana attempted to occupy the rocket-launching space center on 04 april 2017, escalating demonstrations that had crippled the French South American territory for 10 days. Workers had launched protests and strikes demanding pay rises and improved public safety, creating a fresh crisis in the last few weeks of outgoing President François Hollande's term in office On 20 March 2017 angry residents blocked the planned launch of a rocket that was to place into orbit satellites for Brazilian and South Korean operators, in one of the first signs of public anger there.

Protest leaders rejected a government offer of a billion-euro aid package on 03 April 2017 and demanded 2.5 billion euros instead for a "Marshall Plan" to develop the often-overlooked overseas territory. After visiting the world-renowned French space centre in Kourou to meet its director, about 30 activists said they would not leave until the government met their demands.

A protest group that led two weeks of general strikes in French Guiana dismissed France's offer of €1 billion to tackle persistent social problems as “unsatisfactory" and is instead demanding a "new status" for the overseas territory. Interior Minister Matthias Fekl and France’s minister of overseas departments, Ericka Bareigts, announced a renewed commitment to the overseas territory to the tune of more than €1 billion on 01 April 2017, mainly slated for projects to improve security, the justice system, and education and health programs. But the protesters’ collective (Pou La Gwiyann dékolé) dismissed the offer as insufficient to tackle the persistant social problems Guiana is facing. Instead, activists demanded a "new status" for the territory, which they say has "too centralised and too vertical" a relationship with Paris that has prevented it from "moving forward".

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. Although the immigration boom slowed down over the past decade, this relatively poor outpost of Europe remained 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.

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. The unemployment rate in Guiana is 23 percent, and nearly twice this for 18-25-year-olds, while per capita income is about half of the rate in mainland France.

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, but such facilities are often inaccessible to residents of shantytowns and isolated forest villages.

A protest movement began at the end of February 2017 with demonstrations against the high crime rate, with the issue notably driven by the “Collective of 500 Brothers" group. Other activist organisations have joined in since then, widening the scope of grievances and earning the support of several local officials.

The unrest finally caught the attention of the French media in mid-March 2017 when Air France cancelled flights between Paris and Cayenne – French Guiana’s capital city – and the Arianespace corporation was forced to stop a rocket launch from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou. The Ariane 5 rocket that was supposed to carry a South Korean and a Brazilian satellite into space was postponed indefinitely.

Parts of French Guiana, including schools and shops, were shut down on 27 March 2017 amid a general strike over high crime rates, the cost of living and lack of public services. The French government appealed for calm in its South American territory, which had been gripped by protests that have halted flights, disrupted a rocket launch and prompted travel warnings since late February 2017. "The first priority is the fight against insecurity," French President Francois Hollande said. More than 30 labor unions launched the strike, demanding a "Marshall Plan" to improve public services and security.

Some candidates for the 2017 presidential election or their spokesmen spoke about the crisis in Guyana. The invective, the exaggeration and the approximation they have shown help to stir up the disorders that disrupt the lives of Guyanese citizens. Similar unrest gripped French Guiana in 2008 over soaring fuel prices. Schools and the airport were shut down. The strike ended after 11 days, when the government agreed to cut fuel prices.

With less than four weeks until the first round of the French presidential election, the unrest in Guiana was highlighted by several top candidates. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, condemned what she called a "cruel minimum service" delivered by French governments to the territory. She also blamed "mass immigration" for insecurity, according to local media. Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who has just completed a tour of France's overseas territories, called for calm, saying the situation was "serious". He was later mocked for calling the overseas territory an island, which it is not. Conservative candidate Francois Fillon blamed the situation on "the failed policies of Francois Hollande".

On 26 March 2017 Minister of the Interior Matthias Fekl and Minister of Overseas Affairs Ericka Bareigts strongly denounced this political instrumentalization aimed at masking the substantive debates which France, overseas in general, and Guyana in particular, desperately need. "These same candidates, who seem to be discovering overseas territories only during election campaigns, have dangerous proposals that should be recalled, such as the modification of the remuneration of officials or the tax exemption for investment aid.

"As regards security, new and very significant efforts have been made to combat a higher level of delinquency and violence than in France. While the previous majority had suppressed several thousand positions among the security forces, 563 policemen and 310 gendarmes were deployed or projected in overseas territories in 2016 and 2017. In Guyana, a priority security zone (ZSP) Officially launched in Saint-Laurent du Maroni at the beginning of March and a Central Office for the Suppression of Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs (OCRTIS) in the second half of 2016."

“I’ve seen and understood that our fellow citizens in Guiana are fed up. They, like us, are fed up with mass immigration and the insecurity it generates," Le Pen said 26 March 2017, sticking to her core campaign issues of security and immigration. “Guiana has become the most crime-ridden area in France, public services are overwhelmed and people are shut out of medical services."

Speaking to his own supporters in the western city of Rennes, the left-wing firebrand Mélenchon also broached the Guiana crisis, expressing “huge solidarity" with the workers who had decided to go on strike. “Guiana, festering with a lack of security that affects all sectors of society, by longstanding underdevelopment, has become a land of violence with an unemployment rate of approximately 40 percent among young people, the highest in France," he declared. “Their hospitals look more like morgues than places for healing."

Antoine Karma, Guiana's representative to the French senate in Paris, said those in the territory are without basic social services and goods. "Today, 30 percent of the population still does not have access to drinking water or electricity," Karma told French media on 27 March 2017. "We are not treated the same way as the French on the French mainland," the socialist party politician said.

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