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Apr 7, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

8 mins read

French Guiana: Rockets and the Republic

European Space Agency in French Guiana
(JODY AMIET/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary
Since March 27, a general strike and widespread protests have paralyzed French Guiana, the isolated, but strategically located French overseas department in South America. With the economy effectively ground to a halt, local leaders engaged with Paris in tense negotiations, producing an agreement April 6 on an aid package for French Guiana. Most problematic for France, rocket launches at the spaceport in Kourou — a critical hub for Europe's space ambitions — that were suspended when protest activity surged in mid-March remain on hold. While protesters occupying the spaceport dispersed after the aid deal was announced, the events unfolding in France’s largest territorial holding in the Western Hemisphere have renewed Paris' attention on the department’s strategic value as France grapples with the long-term challenge of fulfilling its republican social contract in the impoverished, far-flung entity.
For centuries, French Guiana has had a peculiar relationship with its distant metropole in Paris. After several failed attempts by France to colonize the area in the 16th and 17th centuries, French Guiana was eventually established as a slave colony in 1643. After the abolishment of slavery, it was transformed under Napoleon III's rule into a penal colony — home to the infamous Devil’s Island prison — before this function was gradually phased out by the middle of the 20th century. By this time, French Guiana's status had fundamentally changed, transforming from a colony to a formal overseas department fully integrated with the newly formed French Fourth Republic in 1946.
 
As most other French territorial possessions in Africa and Asia moved toward independence following World War II, French Guiana remained tightly in the fold, in large part because of its strategic value. Perhaps most important, in the 1960s, the department became critical to the development of France’s burgeoning space program and later the European Space Agency. This served former French President Charles de Gaulle’s "Politics of Grandeur," which centered on projecting French influence across the globe to reinforce the country’s independence and status as a world power. French Guiana was a logical site for France to build its spaceport, today known as the Guiana Space Center. The department is near the equator, a placement that reduces the amount of fuel rockets need to burn to achieve orbit. In addition, its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean reduces the likelihood of rocket debris falling on population centers.
French Guiana Map
French Guiana holds a geostrategic importance for France in other ways as well. As a sizable entity on the peripheries of both South and North America, with access to the Atlantic and proximity to the Caribbean Sea, it is viewed by Paris as valuable for projecting French power and influence globally — a desire that has obsessed French planners since long before the de Gaulle era. Moreover, the department contains abundant and still mostly unexploited natural resources, particularly gold and timber (more than 95 percent of the territory is covered in forest).

Roots of Discontent 

French Guiana's value to Paris has endured into the modern era. However, the local citizenry has historically seen itself as neglected by the distant French central government, and lengthy strikes and rioting have periodically broken out in the department. Numerous issues appear to be fueling the latest bout of instability.
 
Central to the unrest is the department's 22 percent unemployment rate, roughly twice as high as France's nationwide average. This has furthered perceptions that the Paris has failed to adequately invest in the department beyond the spaceport and has responded rigidly to local concerns. It has also exacerbated local issues, such as disenchantment with a political class seen as corrupt and the intensifying strain from increased illegal migration from neighboring Suriname, Haiti and Brazil. A security breakdown fueled by drug trafficking, illegal gold mining and unemployment has made the department by far the most violent in France.
 
As in past French elections, the run-up to the first round of France's presidential election on April 23 is helping intensify the troubles in French Guiana. (The department experienced four weeks of rioting ahead of France's 1996 presidential vote.) The recent strikes have gained notice among politicians in mainland France, raising their profile in the French media and giving protest organizers a bigger megaphone than usual. Meanwhile, ill-advised comments from French political elites — most notably presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's bungled reference to French Guiana as an "island" — have heightened feelings of neglect in the department.
 
As a result, the size and scope of the latest bout of social instability across French Guiana has grown to unprecedented proportions. The general strike launched March 27, like smaller stoppages staged earlier in the month, has drawn widespread participation. The protests have been organized primarily by local unions, but also a self-defense group calling itself “The 500 Brothers Against Delinquency," whose masked and hooded members led a 10,000-person march in the local capital of Cayenne on March 28. The unrest has forced the closures of schools, government offices, port facilities and several roads. Perhaps most notable, it also forced the cancellation of several satellite launches, and on April 4, protesters began attempting to occupy the Guiana Space Center.

Coming to Terms

Protest leaders made a range of demands, but negotiations centered on a sizeable aid package from Paris targeting such critical sectors as health, education and security. For its part, the Socialist government of French President Francois Hollande was spurred into action, sending two ministers last week to negotiate with the protesters. Particularly during an election year, Paris is keen to head off additional protests that would intensify scrutiny at home of its handling of France's overseas departments and territories. Protesters initially rejected an offer of aid worth around 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion), while French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has called the 2.5 billion euros demanded by protesters unrealistic. (For context, the department’s gross domestic product is generally around 4 billion euros.) On April 6, the two sides settled on an assistance package closer to what France initially offered, and protesters cleared out of the space center. The package, which will cement local perceptions of a one-sided relationship with Paris, will not address the underlying issues.
 
The other major demand by protesters is that the department be granted a "special status," and agreement on that point may prove to be more elusive. Essentially, this would involve a restructuring of relations with Paris, which exercises a rigid authority over the department that French Guianese leaders see as one-sided and stunting local development. The status would grant the department greater autonomy over a number of local issues, while leaving foreign policy and other issues to the central government. But following through with this demand would face several complications.
 
First, the French Constitution requires such a change to be approved in a departmentwide referendum. In 2010, voters rejected a similar referendum on changing French Guiana's status from overseas department to what's known as an overseas collectivity by a wide margin, and Paris has said that the parties should continue to abide by the decision. (Protesters argue that the 2010 vote did not reflect the will of the people and that the surging support for the current demonstrations justify a new poll.) Second, largesse from Paris is largely responsible for sustaining the department's economy. Without the transfer of public funds to the department, local living standards would theoretically fall to levels similar to those in Suriname, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Finally, Paris may be wary of provoking calls for greater autonomy, or even outright independence, from other French overseas departments — given that that some have expressed similar dissatisfaction with economic stagnation and lack of opportunities in recent years.

The Spaceport Is the Prize

An agreement on French Guiana's status and level of autonomy may likewise prove possible, with the broad support for the strikes forcing the French government to hold another referendum. After all, enhanced autonomy would not pose a risk to France’s core interests in the department, primarily strategic assets such as the Guiana Space Center and Paris' control over the European Space Agency and the increasingly lucrative commercial launch sector centered at the spaceport. (Locally, the space industry accounts for more than 16 percent of the department's economy and employs more than 12 percent of its active labor force.)
 
More worrying are the longer-term implications of a perpetually restive French Guianese population. Grappling with economic stagnation and high unemployment in the mainland, Paris will remain reluctant to commit significant resources to the isolated department — and the aid agreement reached April 6 underscored the protesters' lack of negotiating leverage. But failure to improve local standards of living, education and security in the years ahead would further alienate the already-isolated department, potentially ripening conditions for an outright independence movement. This would pose a more potent threat to French control over the spaceport, whose role in projecting power will only increase in the years ahead. Of course, the Cold War dynamics that compelled France to build its space program has ceded to much greater collaboration in the 21st century. Nonetheless, Paris is determined to remain on the vanguard of the burgeoning launch industry, currently valued at around $300 billion globally.
 
As it stands, a substantial independence campaign in French Guiana remains a distant threat, and any movement in that direction would be heavily constrained by the department's reliance on Paris. Nonetheless, the persistence of the deep structural deficiencies affecting French Guiana, along with France's struggle to address them, have exposed an uncomfortable reality for Paris: It cannot afford to ignore such a geostrategically valuable asset. As French media outlet Le Figaro quoted a high-level official under cover of anonymity: "The loss of Guiana would not only be tragic, it would be disastrous, irreparable on the geopolitical level."

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