As French as Paris or the Bouches-du-Rhône, politically-speaking, France’s Département of Guyane Française (known as French Guiana to the English-speaking world) has often felt and been treated as something of a forgotten stepchild in France’s national discussion.
Occupying a fringe of South America’s northern coast, its population only a little over 250,00, French Guiana, sandwiched between Surinam and Brazil, first came to prominence as a penal colony (it was the site of the infamous Île du Diable, or Devil’s Island), before becoming a fully fledge French department in 1946. More distant from mainland France than even its Francophone Caribbean neighbours Martinique and Guadeloupe, French Guiana nevertheless made an imprint on the history of the French empire when native son Félix Éboué, who served a distinguished career in the French military, became the first black man every appointed to a governing post in the French colonies when he was made governor of the latter in 1936.
In recent years, however, many Guianans have felt they have been given short shrift from their relationship with the mainland leaders in the far away Élysée Palace. Clandestine gold mining in French Guiana’s interior has in turn has fed both drug and human trafficking from neighbouring countries and resulted in a feeling of widespread insecurity. With an unemployment rate of 22% and half its population under the age of 22, it goes without saying that such social indices are a recipe for turmoil, and as recently as 2008, French Guiana had witnessed unrest linked to the rising price of fuel.
Things began to erupt earlier this year after the murder in February of a young man in the capital, Cayenne. Led by a masked group of demonstrators garbed in black and referring to themselves as the 500 Frères (500 Brothers), a protest movement began to take shape. On 17 March, the group interrupted a meeting of France’s then ecology minister Ségolène Royal, and the same day unions demanded a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the department. A general strike began on 27 March, and a broad-based civil society group calling itself Pou Lagwiyann Dékolé (For Guyana to Take Off) demanded redress from French authorities.
The department’s Centre Spatial Guyanais, a French and European spaceport that has been used to send supplies to the International Space Station, was occupied by labour leaders for nearly three weeks.
Finally, in late April, French minister for overseas territories Ericka Bareigts inked an agreement with local protest leaders and MPs promising an emergency relief plan worth up to €2.1bn, with funds slated for education, healthcare and security, as well as business development.
In addition to the space centre, French Guiana’s main exports consist of the aforementioned mining (mostly gold, and accounting for around 30% of total exports), fishing (5% of the total) and timber (1%). A budding ecotourism industry has not yet taken off in a substantial way but holds great potential in a region of fecund rainforests and snaking rivers. It remains to be seen whether the new deal will develop French Guiana as much as locals would like, but if real change comes to the department, it could represent an appealing euro-denominated location for foreign investors.