“How can we continue to launch rockets in the middle of shanty towns?”* It was President François Mitterrand who asked this rhetorical question in 1985, just after he had witnessed the launch of an Ariane rocket from the Kourou space centre in French Guiana (Guyane). It is a question that has been repeated several times in the media over the past few days, as massive protests have strengthened throughout the territory, culminating in a general strike that started on Monday.
Guiana has enjoyed the status of a French département since 1946 and in theory therefore, enjoys all the rights and standards of any other département in France. But as with many things in France, there is often a gap between the theory and the practice. And as that gap has been growing wider and wider over the years in Guiana, the pent–up anger and frustration finally boiled over last week. The French Prime Minister has called for calm and the newly appointed Minister of the Interior and the Minister responsible for France’s overseas territories have been dispatched to Guiana to try and calm things down.
Guiana is one of a large number of France’s overseas territories, remnants of its colonial past, that are dotted all over the world, including French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific, La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Guiana in the North Eastern corner of South America. They are subject to the same legislation, have the same currency and membership of the EU, and are supposed to have the same levels of public services as the rest of France. This is very clearly not the case in Guiana, nor, for that matter (but, arguably, to a lesser extent) in the other overseas départements. Apart from a small island of prosperity immediately surrounding the Kourou Space Centre, now run as a European facility by the European Space Agency that generates a modicum of economic activity, huge tracts of the département are dirt poor, with nothing like the living standards that people in mainland France take for granted: economic activity is stagnant, agriculture is impoverished, unemployment is well over 25%, the streets are unsafe, there is sore lack of hospitals and other health care facilities, the number of pupils dropping out of school is alarmingly high, quite apart from the fact that many children never go to school in the first place because there are simply not enough schools and teachers. And as if this were not enough, Guiana’s problems are compounded by high levels of illegal immigration from neighbouring Brazil, with which France has its longest land border, on one side and Surinam on the other. Even though Guianese living standards are low compared to mainland France, they are still substantially higher than in those neighbouring countries, which is a powerful incentive to cross the borders to try and take advantage of the difference. An added attraction for immigrants is the lure of gold that can be found in Guianese rivers and forests, much of which is extracted illegally.
And when the situation takes on crisis proportions, as it has in the past week, the response is always the same: a delegation of ministers and senior officials does the rounds during a well-publicised visit and miraculously comes up with some public money to spend on roads, schools, hospitals, public housing and the like. Just enough for normal life to resume but not enough to bring about long-term improvement. And yet, Guiana and the other overseas départements, have considerable potential, particularly forestry and maritime reserves that, if properly exploited, could go a long way to improving economic opportunities and living standards. However, ever since 1946, Paris has shown precious little interest in doing anything of the kind. “Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the order of the day.
In a book written about Francois Mitterrand at the end of his political career, he is quoted as saying: “My long political career has led me to the realisation that in France, problems are only solved when there is a crisis. As long as a trial of strength has not reached its point of maximum tension, nothing happens, nothing is settled”.*
The latest crisis in Guiana seems a perfect illustration of what he meant.
* Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own.