Image from Telesur
Faced with rising crime rates, rampant unemployment, and an ever worsening standard of living, 37 labor unions as well as numerous associations decided to organize a general strike. Located in South America, French Guiana is currently France’s largest overseas territory – a relic of France’s former colonial empire – and the “capital of Europe’s space industry” with the Guiana Space Centre (GSC) in Kourou.
Unemployment rates are as high as 22% among the general population and 50% among young people. 30% of the country’s residents do not have access to water or electricity in their homes. Basic public services are lacking, particularly in the realm of education. This is a direct consequence of austerity measures imposed by both the right and left-wing governments in Paris. The former French colony remains heavily dependent on imports and public funds from the French mainland.
Over 100,000 people took to the streets to protest. Schools, hospitals, and businesses were shut down. Workers and local residents even succeeded in blocking the scheduled launch of an Ariane 5 rocket from the GSC on Tuesday.
But workers are not the only ones protesting. In an obvious attempt to control the movement and dilute its radical spirit, the local business community also joined the protests, demanding a “Marshall Plan” to reinvigorate the country’s economy.
The 500 Brother, a group created after the murder of a poor guianan, has also taken center stage of this general strike. One of their central demands concerns reducing organized crime. Their spectacular, militia-like actions as well as their black face masks, have brought them international attention. But their demands are quite right-wing: an end to squats, an increased police presence, a limits on immigration, and the deportation of foreigners currently detained in the country’s prison system.
The “land question” is also at the heart of the current demonstrations. As a former French colony, 90% of French Guiana’s land is held by the French state. France’s ownership of the land, and its refusal to allow local farmers to cultivate the products necessary to support the country’s agricultural needs, keeps the country in a state of colonial dependence.
The mass protest movement has forced the political establishment in mainland France to break its silence. Most of the presidential candidates had to speak about the Guianan general strike. The major candidates – Marine Le Pen (Front national, far right), François Fillon (Les Républicains, right), Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!, neoliberal center), Benoît Hamon (Parti socialiste, left) and Jean-Luc Melenchon (La France insoumise, radical left) – have defended France’s imperialist interests in the region, whether it be with (right- or left-wing) populist or neoliberal arguments.
President Hollande sought to take a hardline at first, but as strike action grew, he quickly sent ministers and government officials to negotiate a way out of the growing crisis. As is typical, the government tried to divide the protestors, promising to deliver on crime-related demands while ignoring those driven by working-class organizations. Realizing this, the movement’s representatives quickly left the negotiating table, turning their efforts back to the street.
Although this is a movement that includes many different social classes, with many different demands the French and international labor movements must support the Guianan protesters who are fighting against their worsening living and working conditions as well as against colonial domination.