Schools, businesses and roads shuttered in French Guiana last week as over 30 labor unions launched a general strike protesting high unemployment, crime and substandard public services. A collective called the “500 Brothers Against Delinquency” is heading the movement. Dressed in black, anonymous and hooded, the nonviolent group led a 10,000-person march in the capital of Cayenne on Tuesday, March 28.
French Guiana is a department of France and its people are paid in euros and speak French. Ninety percent of its imports come from France, which also is its biggest employer. With a total population near a quarter million, Guiana is the second-largest region of France and the largest outermost region within the European Union. Despite this interconnectedness, the South American territory has been neglected for decades, with one civil servant from France’s Overseas Military calling it, “A sick country too dependent upon the mainland and incapable of dealing with the population flux from Surinam and Brazil.”
The French first settled in Guiana in the early 16th century but didn’t establish a lasting presence until 1643. Its population increased as a slave colony until the abolishment of slavery with the French Revolution. “Freedom” was short-lived, though, and Guiana shortly afterwards became a penal colony under Napoleon III’s rule. Three small islands off the coastline of Guiana made up the penal system, with Devil’s Island being the most infamous. Some 70,000 inmates were sent there, but with harsh conditions, dangerous animals, little medical care, brutal guards and backbreaking labor, only 5,000 survived. Now considered a shameful part of French history, the penal colony system closed in 1953.
Under the influence of Charles De Gaulle, Guiana once again became a department of France in 1946 and established the Guiana Space Center in 1965, which now serves as the European Space Agency’s primary launch site near the equator. Guiana has the highest GDP in South America and the space center is a major player in the local economy. Given that France supplies most of Guiana’s goods, the cost of living is high. This isn’t a problem for the wealthy expatriate community (which is really just a nice way of saying white immigrants), but with more than 20 percent of the local population unemployed, it’s become a crisis. The European Union recently approved a tax break on imports and special aid to all of France’s outermost regions to alleviate some of this stress.
There’s a long history of unrest in Guiana, and this general strike was preceded by demonstrations in 1996 that resulted in four weeks of riots prior to the French presidential election. In 2008, a strike lasting longer than a week shut down schools and the airport, which led to the government cutting fuel prices. Since then, 15,000 families have been placed on housing waiting lists and crime abounds with illegal gold miners coming in from neighboring Brazil and Surinam. In 2016, there were 42 murders in Guiana, more than any other French territory. Antoine Karam, who serves as Guiana’s representative to the French senate, claims that the territory is not given the same advantages of those on the French mainland and that 30 percent of the population lacks access to clean drinking water and electricity.
The 500 Brothers collective is demanding improved educational resources and medical services, a new judiciary and police commissioner, and better infrastructure. Prime Minister Bernard Cazanueve criticized protesters’ methods but did admit that additional support is needed. Thus far, French authorities have offered 1.08 billion euros ($1.16 billion) for “emergency measures” paid over 10 years. In addition France announced its willingness to build a new penitentiary to relieve prison crowding, increased police reinforcements and funds for the hospital in Cayenne. The strikers rejected France’s offer and countered with a demand of 2.5 billion euros ($2.7 billion) paid all at once. France attempted to send a delegation of civil servants to Cayenne to negotiate, but organizers refused, demanding that political decision-makers be sent in to compromise. The strike has interrupted air travel as well as a planned launch at the Guiana Space Center, and on Thursday, the French complied and sent in French Minister of Overseas Ericka Bareigts and French Interior Minister Matthias Fekl to bargain.
Prior to entering negotiations, Bareights offered an apology to protesters and acknowledged that years of lack of investment from France have led to Guiana’s current situation. Her admission was met with applause and lowered tensions, but it remains to be seen whether demands will be met.
As France approaches another presidential election in four weeks, one can only hope that these negotiations have a long-term impact. The response from candidates has been somewhat disappointing thus far, with most blaming the French government without offering tangible solutions.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen criticized the government for delivering what she called a “cruel minimum service” and predictably blamed immigration for rising crime rates. Conservative candidate Francois Fillon blamed the situation on current President Francois Hollande’s “failed policies.”
Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who just completed a tour of France’s overseas territories, called the situation serious and appealed for calm. He was later dragged on social media for calling the overseas territory an island.
Much like the many other countries that are still recovering from the devastating effects of colonialism, the legacy of systemic oppression has stunted the growth of Guiana. Hopefully, the organizers behind this strike hold out for a fair deal and whoever is elected President accepts the country’s responsibility in affording the French Guiana the same privileges that citizens on the mainland enjoy.