Most people in France are now focused on that country’s upcoming four-way presidential elections, slated for Sunday, April 23, a seemingly chaotic, nail-biting free-for-all with more unexpected juts and turns than a Grand Prix road race along the Col de Braus.
But while the French are busy passionately debating the fate of their homeland electoral front over demitasses and crème brûlées in Rive Gauche cafés, there may be a more urgent political firestorm brewing in their overseas territory of Guiana.
For the last four weeks, most schools and government offices in French Guiana have been closed or brought to a near standstill by a general strike organized by union activists demanding improved health, education and security services from their aloof suzerain.
The strike has also paralyzed businesses, led to the cancelling of daily flights between Paris and Cayenne, stranded cargo ships at the capital city’s port, and even erupted into violence, leaving several police officers and civilians injured after tensions exploded into a riot on April 7.
And, it has led to the indefinite postponement of an Arianespace rocket launch at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) in Kourou.
The CSG, built in 1965 by Arianespace, is the second-busiest spaceport in the world (right after Cape Canaveral), launching 11 separate orbital satellites last year alone, and is the main reason that France so tenaciously clings to its last remaining territory in South America.
But it is also a focus of discontent for the Guianese people, who resent the fact that they get little to nothing in the way of benefits from the center’s launchings, which rake in about $1.5 billion in revenues each year for its European owners while most locals have no electricity or running water and nearly one in four is jobless.
So far, Paris’ response to the disgruntled Guianese has been to offer a $1.1 billion package of Band-Aid fixes to the territory’s hemorrhaging school and healthcare systems, which, according to the 37-union Collective to Get Guiana Moving organization, which has spearheaded the protests, would require a minimum initial investment of at least $3.7 billion.
Much to Paris’ chagrin, the unions have rejected that offer and are now threatening to expand the protests with roadblocks, sit-ins, marches and territory-wide shut-downs, bringing all commercial and government activity to a halt, including any further launchings from Kourou.
There are also fresh rumblings for independence for Guiana, which has, under centuries of French rule, suffered the indignities of serving first as slave colony and then a penal colony for its European masters.
Technically, Guiana gained a semblance of sovereignty in 1946, when Paris passed a law relabeling it a department rather than a colony, along with its overseas holdings of Martinique, Guadeloupe and La Réunion.
In accordance with that law, the French Guianese were granted French citizenship.
But while their legal status may be on a par with their European compatriots, their standard of living is far below.
The Guianese resent this economic disparity and the apparent deaf ears of Paris when it comes to their demands.
But while France may not care much about the fate of the Guianese people, it is concerned about a potential loss of income from its Space Center in Kourou.
And with the prospect of the protests closing down the CSG permanently, the French electorate may want to put down their coffees and sweets and redirect their attention to their errant territory in South America.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.