On Monday, March 27, a general strike organized by over 27 labour unions in French Guiana began. More than 10,000 people attended this demonstration through the territory’s capital, Cayenne. This strike has been supported by a number of protests throughout the region, with over 250,000 people joining on the second day. The ‘500 Brothers’ also took part in a general strike and protests.
French Guiana was occupied by the French in the 17th century as a slave colony. It became a French department in 1964, and now has a population of 250 thousand. Despite being a French colony, the people have historically complained about not receiving the same rights and resources as those in France. In particular, Antoine Karma has criticized the French government for not caring better for the territory, claiming that “thirty percent of the population still does not have access to drinking water or electricity.” It also has the highest rates of murder of all the Frances’ overseas territories and unemployment is set to double in the coming years.
The strike and protest are due to economic hardship and high rates of crime. As they marched, they yelled “We are all united today because the country is in danger!” and “French Guiana, rise up, rise up! It’s time to rise up!” Members of the ‘500 Brothers’ were clad in black, hooded, and non-violent in their stand against organized crime and social injustice.
Due to the strike and protests, schools were closed, access to the airport has been blocked, the launch of an Ariane 5 Rocket has been postponed, and roads to neighbouring countries, Brazil and Suriname, have been blocked. In addition to this, the strike has also prompted a U.S. travel warning.
The protests are the largest the region has faced since 2008, which protested a rise in fuel prices. These protests lasted for 11 days and ended only after the government agreed to cut fuel prices. However, it is important to note that the region has had a long history of unrest. Associate Professor at Arizona State University, Philip Toth, has said that “French Guiana has always had a rather unfortunate reputation as an economic backwater whose general neglect by French officials is only periodically interrupted by outbreaks of political protest and acts of violence by various local groups demanding greater economic investment in the region.”
It has also been thrust into the spotlight of the upcoming presidential election in France, with candidates now calling for intervention in French Guiana. François Fillon has blamed current President François Hollande for the current state of the territory, while Marine Le Pen accused the government of “averting its eyes” to the territory’s problems with illegal immigration.
Since the strike, the French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has announced that Interior Minister, Matthias Fekl, and Minister for France’s Overseas Territories, Ericka Barieghts, will be sent to the region to speak to the protesters, as protesters have refused to negotiate with lower-level officials. Their refusal to speak to lower-level officials is due to an overwhelming feeling that the government is unwilling to take their demands seriously.
PM Cazeneuve has said that while it is necessary for all citizens of the French Republic to be “able to able to benefit from the support and solidarity of the state,” no solutions for French Guiana’s current crises will be found “amid disorder.” He has, however, already offered to construct new penitentiaries in order to relieve prison crowding.
The strike has been wildly successful in pushing the social and economic problems of French Guiana to the forefront of French media, particularly due to the upcoming election. The city of Cayenne has been effectively paralyzed by the strike and protests, but the people have continued to stand strong in their non-violent fight for economic stability, access to basic resources, and increased social justice.