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 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. 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 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).
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 have periodically broken out. Central to the unrest is the department's 22 percent unemployment rate. It has furthered perceptions that the Paris has failed to adequately invest in the department beyond the spaceport. 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. 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.