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Turmoil in French Guiana

Trinidad Express / An indefinite general strike started on Monday. Gas stations were shut down, roads blocked. One-in-twenty of the population took to the streets in protest, 14,000 or more in all. And a national election is just 23 days away.

The European Space Agency’s rocket site at Kourou was forced to hold over the launch of Brazilian and South Korean satellites.

Clad all in black and heads masked with balaclavas, members the 500 Brothers Collective are patrolling.

Anywhere else in the Caribbean, and this would be our front-page news. But it’s the French overseas region of Guyane (with an E, not A.) I’ve seen nothing in the English-language Caribbean media – even from nearby Guyana.

In mainland France, Guyane has been headline news – despite the run-up to the April 23 presidential election, or perhaps because of it. The French national security minister and overseas territory minister flew to the capital Cayenne on Wednesday for talks.

So, what’s happening, and why?

A big issue is crime. Last year, there were 42 murders in a quarter-million population. That’s a rate of 17 per 100,000 – half T&T’s, and slightly lower than Guyana’s.

In mainland France, the murder rate is around one per 100,000. Police numbers, meanwhile, have been cut.

In November, an elderly former member of the elected regional council opened his door to investigate a noise outside. He was shot dead, probably in a botched robbery. In August, another former regional councillor was shot dead.

Meanwhile, there’s a steady stream of drug mules, taking cocaine from neighbouring Suriname to Paris. Guyane is fully integrated with the European Union – so, technically, the air link is a French internal flight.

Last year, 371 were intercepted – more than twice as many as in 2014. And that’s just the ones who got caught.

Historically, Guyane was France’s fever-ridden penal colony. Its notorious Devil’s Island and other prisons were depicted in the film and bestseller novel Papillon, part truth and part fiction. The last prisoners left in the 1950s. Former cell blocks are now tourist attractions.

For more than 70 years, Guyane has been governed along with Martinique and Guadeloupe as an integral part of France, with representatives in the French parliament. France’s longest external border is not with Germany or Belgium, but with Brazil.

A leading political figure from Guyane, Christiane Taubira, was French justice minister from 2012 until January last year, when she resigned in protest against plans to strip French citizenship from dual-national convicted terrorists.

Her (distant) ex-husband was an independence campaigner, jailed in the 1980s over plans to blow up an oil and gas facility.

But the independence movement remains small, because in many ways Guyane gets a good deal. Government employees are paid French salaries, with a top-up to compensate for higher living costs.

Albina, on the west bank of the frontier river with Suriname, is fly-blown and depressed. Saint Laurent du Maroni, on the French side, seems prosperous.

ATMs dispense euros. Supermarkets are stocked with wines and cheeses from mainland France. But food prices are almost 45 per cent higher. There is real poverty nearby, most of all among the Maroon population, who fled Suriname’s civil war in the 1980s.

Gross Domestic Product per person in Guyane is the highest in South America. It is higher than T&T’s, more than double Brazil’s, and knocking on for five times that of nearby Guyana.

But it’s less than half that of mainland France. And unemployment is more than double, at 22 per cent More than a quarter of the population are poor enough to need welfare payments for income support.

This week’s protesters are demanding better health and education, and stronger controls on crime.

Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate likely to win next month’s French elections, promises more autonomy and economic development, environmental protection, and low-cost flights to Paris.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right populist expected to place second, wants tighter controls on illegal migration. She would also phase out the public sector salary top-up.

Migration is another big issue. The population has doubled since the 1990s and increased almost ten-fold since the 1950s, party because of the high birth rate, but mainly because of immigration. Almost one-third of the population were born outside France, many of them in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname or Haiti.

There’s a daily trickle of maxi-travellers from Georgetown through Suriname. Some are small-scale miners who dredge for gold on the border river, upstream from Saint Laurent.

Back in 2011, Tullow announced an oil find in its offshore Zaedyus well; but that one has gone quiet. Other than Kourou, Guyane’s economic foundations look shaky.

So, what’s next? A national election campaign is a great time to get attention, but a bad time for a lasting fix.

This week’s ministerial visit is bound to bring concessions. But further ahead? An earlier round of troubles in 2009 failed to bring clarity. Independence seems unlikely; Guyana and Suriname are not entirely attractive models. Readers’ comments in France’s leading newspaper, le Monde, seem itchy. There’s talk of subsidies which evaporate uselessly as soon as they’re transferred.

So, after the elections? Maybe just a Gallic shrug, and move on.

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