Why are the people of French Guiana so angry?

Why are the people of French Guiana so angry?

Over 20,000 people rallied on 28 March in Cayenne and Saint-Laurent du Maroni, in French Guiana, to protest against a whole raft of problems affecting this French territory located in South America. The protestors included the members of a group called the 500 Brothers against Crime who denounce the insecurity and violence blighting French Guiana.

(Rosane Fayet)

In the last few weeks French Guiana, the only French department in South America, has been going through the worst social crisis in its history: its highways are blocked, schools are closed, there are strikes in several economic sectors and historic rallies in its cities. The anger runs deep as the French government struggles to respond to the demands of the protestors, who are ready to get tougher.

For many French people this gigantic (France’s second largest region) but thinly populated (250,000 inhabitants) territory is known above all for being the launch site of the Ariane rocket, the jewel of the European space industry, now disrupted by the social movement.

Ariane will not take off any more, not until French Guiana takes off, chant the Guianese. Pou Lagwiyann dékolé (“Let Guyana take off” in Guianese Creole) is in fact the name of the group heading the protest movements and whose task it is to take the long list of demands to the government.

The exasperation of the Guianese is the result of a multitude of health, education, economic and environmental problems that France has neglected, say the protestors. They are also demonstrating against insecurity and violence. At the end of 2016 Guyana beat an unenviable record: it became France’s most deadly territory, with 42 murders among its 250,000 inhabitants, several of which have shaken public opinion.

“We are fed up with murders, attacks, with our women and children being frightened! We have to turn the tables on fear!” cries Mikaël Mancée, one of the spokespersons for the brand new collective 500 Brothers against Crime.

The people’s anger and emotion was also expressed in August 2016 when a senior patient at the hospital in Cayenne died in a fire in his bedroom. In the aftermath of his death it emerged that between June and August four premature babies had died in the same hospital of staphylococcus. They weren’t the first. For many years the hospital has been criticised by trade unions and the public for its lack of security, its deplorable lack of human and material resources, and its huge deficit estimated at about €400 million (US$ 42 million).

The public health crisis and the lack of hospitals in Cayenne also affect the rest of Guiana and make access to health care problematic.

For those living outside the capital it is particularly difficult, and it can take them several days to reach a hospital. “To give birth, a woman in Camopi (an Amerindian district in the south-east) has to take a pirogue and then travel by road to Cayenne. They come at least one month before the birth of their baby and when they get there they are on their own for all that time,” says Jean-Philippe Chambrier, president of the Federation of the Indigenous Organisations of Guyana (Fédération des organisations autochtones de Guyane, or Foag).

Education is also in severe difficulties. “The situation is catastrophic. We need an emergency plan,” says Vincent Touchaleaume, secretary of the Education Workers’ Union of the Guyanese Workers’ Union (Syndicat des travailleurs de l’éducation de l’Union des travailleurs guyanais, or STEG-UTG).

“We urgently need five high schools, ten middle schools and 500 primary classes,” adds Bruno Niederkorn, a teacher and activist from the same union. Everyone is campaigning for a better education policy and for an education system better suited to the needs of Guyanese children, who feel alienated by the programme of the French Republic, which teaches European history and does not recognise, or barely recognises, local languages. Education is also at the root of a profound identity crisis amongst the Amerindians, the direct descendents of the first inhabitants of French Guiana.

According to Anne-Marie Chambrier of Foag: “We must reappropriate our history and pass it on to the younger generations. It does not begin with colonisation. Before the Europeans arrived, we were present on this territory, and we were organised social, politically and culturally.”

The indigenous peoples are, furthermore, three times more affected by the infrastructure delays than the rest of the population, the majority of whom live on the Atlantic coast in the north.

The rest of the country is virtually just forest. In these remote regions in the south and the interior, the few schools that exist are far more dilapidated than those in the coastal towns, and teachers often lack even the most basic means to provide an education. To continue their education, the pupils go to the coast where they are often treated appallingly and where they are separated from their families and their culture. The situation is so bad some are driven to dropping out from school, to prostitution, drug trafficking or suicide.

“Guyana is thirty years behind the rest of France. This has to stop! The social implosion we have been warned about for decades is happening, right now,” says Lydia, 31, who came to join the demonstration on 28 March through the streets of Cayenne, together with 15,000 other protestors.

“We are at the end of our tether”

French Guiana’s entire economy is on its last legs, and is struggling to balance European standards with the realities of a territory situated in South America. It is impossible, for example, to import raw materials directly from its big neighbour, Brazil. The same goes for petrol, even though neighbouring Suriname has it, at half the price.

Farmers and fishermen are the first to suffer. “They’re killing us, we are at the end of our tether!” Jean-Hubert François, president of a young farmers’ group, told Equal Times, after spraying liquid manure on the façade of the prefecture with exasperated colleagues, during a demonstration.

Nearly half the products consumed in French Guiana are now imported from Europe and national policy does little to support the development of local industry.

All these factors have driven up the cost of living for the Guianese. While half the region lives below the poverty line, the basic food basket costs up to 45 per cent more than in France.

At the same time, the unemployment rate is one of the highest in France. “With 23 per cent of the population out of work, including 44 per cent of under-24s, how can you expect the crisis to be anything other than monumental?” protests Jean-Marc Chemin, general secretary of Guianese Workers’ Union (Union des travailleurs guyanais, UTG).

In this context, the arrival of numerous migrants from all four corners of the continent is ill received, particularly as many of these migrants are clandestine and are illegally exploited by the fishing and gold industries. The illicit panning for gold has been known about for a long time, but the authorities struggle to find any effective solutions. According to the NGO WWF, for gold alone, “an estimated 10 to 12 tonnes of gold are exfiltrated per year, while the annual production officially declared varies between one and two tonnes”.

In addition to the capital flight caused by this scourge there is a serious environmental crisis, all adding to the sense of abandonment felt by the Guianese and their determination to continue their protests against the French authorities.

This article has been translated from French.