Joel Dreyfuss is a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.
You would think that France, with its 400-year history as a colonial power, would be better at managing its overseas territories. Yet a simmering confrontation between the authorities in Paris and protesters in the French department of Guiana burst into violence on April 7, when several policemen were injured (and one hospitalized) during a demonstration. Three days later, President François Hollande urged the protesters to end their actions and offered to meet with the territory’s elected officials to plan “Guiana’s future.” The activists turned down a meeting but temporarily lifted their barricades to let their fellow Guianese do their Easter shopping.
Guyane, as the French call it, is a vestige of a colonial empire that once stretched from Canada to West Africa to the Pacific Ocean. Located on the northeast coast of South America, and bordered by Brazil and Surinam, French Guiana is by far the largest and most sparsely populated French overseas territory, with 250,000 residents scattered over 32,000 square miles (roughly the size of Portugal). Other remaining French possessions around the world include specks of land scattered from the Caribbean (Martinique and Saint Bart’s) to Polynesia (Tahiti) and the Indian Ocean (Reunion and Mayotte).
The union-led protests in French Guiana are now into their fourth week and have included a general strike that has paralyzed the territory, caused businesses and schools to shut and forced airlines to cancel daily flights between France and the major city, Cayenne. Visits by the French minister of overseas territories and the interior minister and an offer of a $1.1 billion package to build schools, upgrade medical facilities and improve security have not defused tensions. French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve last week rejected a demand from the protesters for an additional $2.7 billion.
It’s not the first time France has faced unrest in its overseas territories. In 2009, Guadeloupe was paralyzed for weeks by strikes. In 1996 and 1997, confrontations between the government, students and separatists (who advocate for independence from France) flared up in Guiana. The desire for a complete break surfaces from time to time, but it remains a minority view, even among the protesters, whose anger is primarily directed at the lack of economic opportunity.
After World War II, French authorities sought to hold their faraway territories more closely by turning them into “departments” of France, integral political entities equivalent to those on the mainland with elected representatives in the Assembly and the Senate. French Guiana, first settled in 1643, was primarily used as a prison for dangerous criminals and political prisoners. (Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was kept on Devil’s Island off Guiana’s coast.) Guiana is now the site of France’s Kourou space center, a busy launch point for the Ariane rockets carrying commercial satellites. Kourou has become Guiana’s most important economic engine. But Guiana, like most of the other overseas territories, suffers from high unemployment, now at 23 percent, and more than 50 percent among youths.
France’s Observatory for Inequalities, an independent think tank, says poverty and inequality are most severe in France’s overseas territories. Crime is also high, not least because Guiana serves as a drug trans-shipment point between South American producers and Europe. One demand of the protests is a greater police presence. With 42 murders in 2016, Guiana is the deadliest French department and also the most brutal, at 23 violent incidents per 1,000 inhabitants. In addition to drug trafficking, Guiana suffers from undocumented immigration, mainly from nearby Brazil, Surinam and Haiti, and from illegal gold prospecting that pollutes the land with mercury. There is also a high suicide rate among the Amerindian population.
Despite these problems, Guiana, like other French overseas territories, appears relatively well-off compared wth its neighbors. It has the highest per capita GDP in Latin America (estimated at $16,530 in 2014). That is still, however, less than half of the level in metropolitan France. “The amount of financial transfers [from France] make each overseas territory an island of affluence at the heart of a relatively poor environment,” noted Jean-Christophe Gay in a 2009 report, warning that these territories are heavily dependent on funds from France and the European Union.
Living costs are higher than in France because almost everything is imported from France, despite the proximity of lower-cost producers such as Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico. This practice goes back to the “exclusive,” a law during the colonial era that barred French colonies from trading with neighboring countries. While the law is no longer on the books, local entrepreneurs say they are discouraged from making trade links outside of France.
With its jungles and vast rain forests, Amerindian tribes, multiracial population and rich biodiversity, Guiana has the potential to attract visitors and boost its economy. But Guianese have heard many promises from the authorities in Paris and they no longer trust them. Hope is fading and little may be accomplished in the coming weeks as the country turns its attention to the presidential elections. A popular T-shirt worn by demonstrators reads in Creole: Nou bouké sa! or “We’re fed up!” They may have to stay that way for a while yet.