Protests in French Guiana have snowballed into a general strike, bringing the French overseas territory to attention as presidential election candidates vie to make the most political capital from it.
Unrest was sparked in late February due to concerns about crime rates with the ‘Collective of 500 brothers’ group, known for their uniform of black shirt and balaclava, at the forefront of protests. The demonstrations have since evolved to also reflect demands to remedy the economic malaise which the territory currently faces – the unemployment rate is at 20% and the perception among many Guyanese is that they are treated in a disadvantageous way by the French government in comparison to the French mainland.
On Saturday, 37 unions voted in favour of an indefinite general strike until their demand for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for public services and security in French Guiana is met. The original Marshall Plan to which the Guyanese unions clearly aspire for emulation of, was a major American aid investment programme in the economies and infrastructure of Western Europe following the devastation of World War Two.
As the protests and demonstrations have increased in intensity, so too has normal life in French Guiana ground to a halt. Roads to neighbouring Suriname and Brazil have been blocked, schools and shops shut and access to the main airport also disrupted. On Sunday, in response to the vote by unions to go on a general strike, panic buying gripped French Guiana as people rushed to stock up on supplies, especially petrol, before the strike began the next day.
As a result of the unrest, the planned launch of the Ariane 5 rocket carrying a Brazilian and South Korean satellite from the aerospace centre co-run by France and the European Space Agency on French Guyanese soil has been postponed. Additionally, Air France and Air Caraibes have cancelled all flights to French Guiana and the US State Department now advises against its citizens travelling to the territory.
With the actions of the airlines making headlines in the French press, suddenly the overseas territory, with a population the size of Southampton and a landmass 4 times greater than Wales, has been thrust into the Presidential election spotlight with all the main candidates having their say.
While far-right National Front leader and currently predicted second-round candidate Marine Le Pen ascribed the crisis to French Guiana being ‘swamped by illegal immigrants’, the fraud-allegation embattled Republican Party candidate François Fillon claimed it to be a ‘consequence of the failed policies of François Hollande’, the outgoing Socialist leader and President.
The French prime minister Bernard Cazenueve has attacked the ‘demagogery and electoralism’ of Le Pen, while left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has vowed to increase access to public services if he is elected. However, it appears to be front-runner Emmanuel Macron whose comments on the situation have received most coverage, not due to his views on the causes of and solutions to the unrest, but due to an embarrassing geographical blunder.
The independent candidate and founder of the progressive movement ‘En Marche!’ described it as an ‘island’ when it is in actual fact part of the South American mainland. Upon exposure of this mistake, Macron claimed to be referring to the ‘Isle of Cayenne’, a term used to describe the area surrounding the territory’s capital. In spite of his attempts to fudge his misspeaking, he has not escaped ridicule from some on social media.
— MrC (@ClemSCalais) March 26, 2017
In their attempts to defuse the crisis in French Guiana, the Socialist Government of France has promised to send a delegation of ministers to talk to protesters about their grievances by the end of the week, following rebuttal by both the ‘Collective of 500 brothers’ and a number of the territory’s 22 mayors of talks with lower-level French government officials. Following the unions’ vote in favour of a general strike, Cazeneuve also announced a number of measures to placate discontent, including construction of a new prison to ease overcrowding at existing detainment facilities in the country and increased funding for the main hospital in Cayenne.
The ongoing disaffection in French Guiana is not unprecedented in nature, with an 11 day general strike previously occurring in 2008, resolved only when the French government of the time agreed to cut fuel prices. Other Caribbean French overseas territories, Guadeloupe and Martinique, also witnessed profound unrest in 2009. This history of recent public expressions of discontent in French overseas territories perhaps reflects the difficulties of meeting the interests of such distant from mainland areas for all former imperial nations.
In 2010, for example, a referendum offered French Guiana greater autonomy from the French mainland, but this was rejected, while the fiasco of the St Helena airport shows such challenges of meeting the interests of residents of overseas territories are certainly not restricted to France alone.