Manu Saadia is a French writer based in Los Angeles.
Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, called Saturday’s riots in Paris the worst since May 1968. Confounded politicians and pundits struggle to find precedents in France’s recent history to explain the extent and depth of the social crisis. Unlike the riots that rocked the impoverished banlieues in the fall of 2005, the current unrest does not involve second- or third-generation immigrant youths. However, it bears a striking resemblance to what happened in 2017 in another neglected and struggling territory far, far away from Paris: French Guiana. The “overseas territory,” to use the French administrative euphemism, can serve as a magnifying glass to better understand the protests that have forced the government to suspend a tax increase on diesel fuel, as well as the wider problems that beset the rural regions of metropolitan France.
French Guiana sits on the Atlantic coast between Suriname and Brazil. It is an old French colony, roughly the size of South Carolina. Famous for its penal colony (immortalized by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in 1973’s “Papillon”), it now serves as the base for France’s thriving space industry due to its proximity to the equatorial line. Guiana has given France some of its most celebrated political figures, from Félix Eboué, one of Charles de Gaulle’s earliest supporters, to former Senate president Gaston Monnerville, and more recently Christiane Taubira, the feminist justice minister who steered the landmark law legalizing gay marriage through Parliament.
Yet, despite its illustrious civil servants and the high-tech rocket launchpads of Kourou, French Guiana is buckling. Massive investments in the space industry, a global business and a showcase for France’s engineering, have failed to trickle down to the local population. French Guianans feel legitimately neglected by Paris: Poverty, inequality and the lack of adequate public services such as schools, police and hospitals are compounded by a wave of immigration from nearby Brazil and Haiti. (French Guiana’s population doubled between 1990 and 2015, from 115,000 to 260,000.)
In March 2017, during the last French presidential campaign, a group of grass-roots activists began demonstrating against the sale of the nonprofit Kourou hospital to a private operator. They set up roadblocks along the main coastal highway, effectively blocking access to the space center and delaying several satellite launches. The movement quickly picked up steam and expanded to Cayenne, French Guiana’s capital, and to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni to the west. As its support widened among the population, the movement and its leaders broadened the scope of their demands — a local dispute over the privatization of a hospital turned into a tense, month-long protest for better schools, better infrastructure and more state investments to fight poverty, unemployment and crime. In a nutshell, the Guianans demanded equality between their struggling and impoverished country, and the metropole across the ocean.
And they won.
It was neither a peaceful nor an orderly movement, it was hugely disruptive to the local economy, rioting happened and a few public buildings were damaged. But it did ultimately succeed. Under popular pressure, the government agreed to 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in emergency spending earmarked for schools, youth unemployment, hospitals and police.
One can see an uncanny parallel between the quasi-colonial situation in French Guiana and the rural regions of metropolitan France, where protesters have been blocking the roads wearing their iconic yellow utility vests.
Rural France — France profonde, or “deep France” as it is usually called — can sometimes seem as distant from Paris as an overseas territory. The distance is social rather than geographic, but it is as difficult to bridge for the government. As with French Guiana, these are not new problems. Paris and the few other large French cities are wealthy and dynamic. With their world-class infrastructures, public transportation and research centers, they attract investments, high-tech start-ups, businesses large and small.
By contrast, the France of small towns and villages is suffering from de-industrialization and a dearth of public services and transportation infrastructure. This makes car ownership a necessity to get a job in the big city, to go to a doctor’s appointment, to shop for groceries or to drop your kids off at school. Many of the “gilets jaunes” protesters are priced out of Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux, bypassed by the gleaming high-speed trains and confined to the slow lane of the global economy. They might not be poor in absolute terms or even by French Guiana’s standards, but they suffer from a similar sense of injustice, that they are not equal to the other France and the global elite in Paris. In that context, the recent tax increase on fuel was perceived as yet another arbitrary decision from technocrats a world away in Paris. It was the last straw.
It remains that the key difference between the French Guiana protesters of 2017 and their metropolitan counterparts of 2018 is of course one of status. For most of its history, French Guiana was a distant colony, whose indigenous population was cobbled together from Amazonian tribes, marooned slaves and convicts. On the other hand, historians will note that since the French Revolution, rural France has been the backbone of the République — always rebellious but also fiercely republican and egalitarian. That France does not take lightly to be administered like a distant colony by the government. Some might even call that republican, if not white, privilege.