France confronts more domestic discontent — in French Guiana

France confronts more domestic discontent — in South America

Map of The Guianas

April 18, 2017 – Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.

You would think that France, with its 400-year history as a colonial power, would be better at managing its overseas territories. Yet a simmering confrontation between the authorities in Paris and protesters in the French department of Guiana burst into violence on April 7, when several policemen were injured (and one hospitalized) during a demonstration.

Three days later, President François Hollande urged the protesters to end their actions and offered to meet with the territory’s elected officials to plan “Guiana’s future.” The activists turned down a meeting but temporarily lifted their barricades to let their fellow Guianese do their Easter shopping.   

Guyane, as the French call it, is a vestige of a colonial empire that once stretched from Canada to West Africa to the Pacific Ocean. Located on the northeast coast of South America, and bordered by Brazil and Surinam, French Guiana is by far the largest and most sparsely populated French overseas territory, with 250,000 residents scattered over 32,000 square miles (roughly the size of Portugal). Other remaining French possessions around the world include specks of land scattered from the Caribbean (Martinique and Saint Bart’s) to Polynesia (Tahiti) and the Indian Ocean (Reunion and Mayotte).

The union-led protests in French Guiana are now into their fourth week and have included a general strike that has paralyzed the territory, caused businesses and schools to shut and forced airlines to cancel daily flights between France and the major city, Cayenne.

Visits by the French minister of overseas territories and the interior minister and an offer of a $1.1 billion package to build schools, upgrade medical facilities and improve security have not defused tensions. French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve last week rejected a demand from the protesters for an additional $2.7 billion.It’s not the first time France has faced unrest in its overseas territories. In 2009, Guadeloupe was paralyzed for weeks by strikes. In 1996 and 1997, confrontations between the government, students and separatists (who advocate for independence from France) flared up in French Guiana. The desire for a complete break surfaces from time to time, but it remains a minority view, even among the protesters, whose anger is primarily directed at the lack of economic opportunity.

After World War II, French authorities sought to hold their faraway territories more closely by turning them into “departments” of France, integral political entities equivalent to those on the mainland with elected representatives in the Assembly and the Senate. French Guiana, first settled in 1643, was primarily used as a prison for dangerous criminals and political prisoners. (Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was kept on Devil’s Island off Guiana’s coast.) Guiana is now the site of France’s Kourou space center, a busy launch point for the Ariane rockets carrying commercial satellites. Kourou has become Guiana’s most important economic engine. But Guiana, like most of the other overseas territories, suffers from high unemployment, now at 23 percent, and more than 50 percent among youths.

France’s Observatory for Inequalities, an independent think tank, says poverty and inequality are most severe in France’s overseas territories. Crime is also high, not least because Guiana serves as a drug trans-shipment point between South American producers and Europe. One demand of the protests is a greater police presence. With 42 murders in 2016, Guiana is the deadliest French department and also the most brutal, at 23 violent incidents per 1,000 inhabitants. In addition to drug trafficking, Guiana suffers from undocumented immigration, mainly from nearby Brazil, Surinam and Haiti, and from illegal gold prospecting that pollutes the land with mercury. There is also a high suicide rate among the Amerindian population.

Despite these problems, Guiana, like other French overseas territories, appears relatively well-off compared wth its neighbors. It has the highest per capita GDP in Latin America (estimated at $16,530 in 2014). That is still, however, less than half of the level in metropolitan France. “The amount of financial transfers [from France] make each overseas territory an island of affluence at the heart of a relatively poor environment,” noted Jean-Christophe Gay in a 2009 report, warning that these territories are heavily dependent on funds from France and the European Union.

Living costs are higher than in France because almost everything is imported from France, despite the proximity of lower-cost producers such as Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico. This practice goes back to the “exclusive,” a law during the colonial era that barred French colonies from trading with neighboring countries. While the law is no longer on the books, local entrepreneurs say they are discouraged from making trade links outside of France.

With its jungles and vast rain forests, Amerindian tribes, multiracial population and rich biodiversity, Guiana has the potential to attract visitors and boost its economy. But Guianese have heard many promises from the authorities in Paris and they no longer trust them. Hope is fading and little may be accomplished in the coming weeks as the country turns its attention to the presidential elections. A popular T-shirt worn by demonstrators reads in Creole: Nou bouké sa! or “We’re fed up!” They may have to stay that way for a while yet.

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Comments

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On April 24, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    It’s incredible that colonies still exist in our post-colonial times. French Guianese remain outsiders among their South American and Caribbean neighbors.

  • Clyde Duncan  On April 24, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    And Back On The Continent – The Homeland …. Excitement!

    This is not Brexit or Trump, so say au revoir to Marine Le Pen
    Evan Horowitz | Quick Study | Boston Globe

    Financial markets surged Monday on expectations that the young centrist, Emmanuel Macron, is all-but-certain to defeat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election next month.

    Le Pen had spooked investors with fiery anti-globalization rhetoric centered around pulling France out of the euro and the European Union. But are the markets too confident? Le Pen may not have won Sunday’s preliminary vote, but she finished a close second in a field of 11 — and Macron is an untested opponent, having never won elected office before.

    A lot can happen between now and the run-off on May 7, when voters will truly decide who gets to move into the presidential palace. But there are good reasons for Europhiles to break out the champagne — or at least order some cases and get them chilled.

    At this point, a Le Pen victory would require something more like a miracle than a comeback, a reversal far more dramatic than the last-minute electoral twists that gave us Brexit and President Trump.

    Head-to-head polls show Macron running ahead of Le Pen by around 25 points. That’s an enormous lead. Trump, at his worst, was never more than 10 points behind Hillary Clinton. And while pundits may have doubted that Brits would opt to “leave,” pollsters had it roughly neck-and-neck.

    There’s no reason to think Le Pen can close this gap. Just because some populist causes have found surprise paths to victory doesn’t mean they all do. Far right Dutch candidate Geert Wilders came up well short of expectations in last month’s elections.

    More important, mainstream French politicians are already lining up behind Macron, to ensure he holds this lead. That includes not just members of the Socialist party — in which Macron once served — but also the center-right. Within hours of Sunday’s election, their defeated candidate, Francois Fillon, gave Macron his public endorsement.

    This never happened during the Trump campaign. True, some Republican politicians and thought-leaders expressed doubts about Trump, but few actively threw their support toward Hillary Clinton. So the left-right divide remained largely intact, with one party for Clinton, and the other largely against her.

    The Brexit case is slightly more complicated. Rhetorically at least, centrists from both parties did agree about the benefits of continued EU membership, but key Labour party leaders were slow to mobilize and remained luke-warm in their commitment.

    Not so in France, where elites have shown that they will sacrifice party interests to defend what they consider higher principles: including, saying no to a far-right party with a history of racism.

    During regional elections in 2015, a number of Socialist candidates strategically dropped out in order to shore up support for the center-right and forge a unified opposition to Le Pen.

    There is a slight crack in the unified wall this time around: The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is refusing to endorse Macron. But polls suggest that his voters have little crossover interest in Le Pen.

    So the problem for Le Pen, and the French far right more generally, is that whenever it gets close to power, the whole political world reorganizes to stop them. And again this time around, it doesn’t seem likely to overcome that unified opposition.

    Another defeat will surely disappoint Le Pen’s ardent supporters, but investors know it’s good news for the euro and the European project. Brexit may keep moving forward, but Frexit has likely been stalled — for now.

    Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S.A. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz

  • Clyde Duncan  On May 4, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    This is Why Theresa May and Marine Le Pen are More Similar than you Think

    Both rely on the language of threat to win over their voters. May’s promise to tackle ‘unsustainable levels’ of immigration and ‘take back control of our borders’ sounds a lot like something her French counterpart might say

    Karissa Singh, Shaista Aziz | Independent UK

    Five days ago, France voted far-right candidate Marine Le Pen through to the final round of voting for the French presidency.

    Most of us in the UK recognise Marine Le Pen for the racist, nationalist demagogue she is. However, what we are failing to see is the stark resemblance between her divisive campaign tactics and those of our own Prime Minister, Theresa May.

    Both May and Le Pen’s election campaigns are couched in the language of threat, creating a sense of fear and panic.

    Le Pen’s campaign hinges on halting “uncontrollable immigration”; Theresa May talks about “unsustainable levels” of immigration and the need to “take back control of our borders”.

    May and Le Pen manufacture a patriotic national identity that hinges on being a white national and makes the entry of non-whites the threat.

    They directly fuel an “us and them” dichotomy.

    There appears to be a formula to securing power: conflate black and brown citizens and refugees with terrorism in the public discourse, and then profess to be the only powerful leader who can and will save the country from this threat within.

    The genius of these slogans is that it isn’t necessary to explicitly refer to whiteness; the current climate of fear, xenophobia and open racism is enough for people to make that leap themselves, and see in the slogan what they already believe.

    More than ever this racism has been mainstreamed, as can be seen in the click bait headlines circulating discussing Le Pen’s feminist credentials, questioning if she will smash France’s glass ceiling or if she really is far right.

    This is how modern day fascism in France is being packaged, diluted and made more palatable – by marketing Le Pen as a feminist; Front National’s vote has increased amongst women in France. Her so called “feminist” credentials are used to make her fascist lite and more “Presidential”.

    Who is left to face the consequences of this racially charged language? Black and ethnic minority communities, or anyone who is not included in this white-national identity.

    When people feel that their way of life is at stake, that fear is directed at those who are perceived to be a threat in the form of hostility and ultimately violence.

    Politicians like May and Le Pen, and the Brexit Leave campaign before them, have stoked fear and characterized immigrants as the threat. Xenophobic abuse and hate crime are not the work of a “thuggish minority” – they are a direct result of this rhetoric.

    In the same way that Brexit emboldened racist hate by normalising xenophobia, Theresa May’s projected landslide victory will be a public and widespread validation of false narratives – a narrative of threat from anyone that’s other.

    Since Brexit there has already been a marked increase in reported hate crime – that’s clear from the numbers. Our friends at NGOs are “overwhelmed” with cases of racist hate, and we ourselves have both been victims of abuse since Brexit.

    In just the week following the referendum 33 times as many people were affected by hate crime as by terrorism in the whole year. We make this comparison deliberately, because counter-terror initiatives are a priority on the UK policy agenda, yet British people are far more likely to be victims of hate crime – this must be acknowledged and tackled by policy makers too.

    As we watch May’s campaign unfold we should be aware of the consequences of her tactics, and speak out against the dangers of this divisive and dehumanising rhetoric.

    Karissa Singh is founder of Post Ref Racism @PostRefRacism @KarissaSingh
    Shaista Aziz is founder of The Everyday Bigotry Project @ShaistaAziz

    Post Ref Racism and The Everyday Bigotry Project will be campaigning to put hate crime on the agenda in the run up to the election in June 2017

  • Clyde Duncan  On May 4, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Le Pen Deployed Bluster and Bigotry in the TV Debate. Sound Familiar?

    Natalie Nougayrède | The Guardian UK

    Imitating Trump’s tactics may have backfired for Le Pen, with polls showing Macron coming out on top – but rational debate took a hiding in the process

    Marine Le Pen tried to imitate some of Donald Trump’s antics during Wednesday night’s TV debates. She managed to channel his aggressiveness, contempt for facts, provocations, rabid boastfulness and bouts of unleashed absurdity. But, unlike Trump, Le Pen won’t be elected president this Sunday.

    And the reason for this is that: on top of the differences between national electoral systems, Emmanuel Macron, her opponent, managed this week to preserve a much stronger lead than Hillary Clinton did in the last days of the USA campaign.

    If this final French presidential TV debate offers any lessons, it is that alternative facts, used as a political weapon, are here to stay in the fabric of western democracies. They are the vehicle whose purpose is to channel popular anger.

    Just like Trump, Le Pen – although she laughed nervously at times – aimed to be taken seriously, but not literally, by voters. By failing to explain her policies, or even to make sense of them, she sidestepped questions, constantly spread confusion, and even veered on the edge of insanity.

    The crux came towards the end of the debate, when she started swaying her arms, eyes bulging, accusing Macron of mocking her supporters and treating them as “invaders” – a video that quickly became viral on social media. It brought to mind, but in an entirely unhinged version, Trump’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s “Basket of Deplorables” line – although Macron had all along smartly avoided that kind of vocabulary. Le Pen’s point, like Trump’s, was to say she alone spoke for people who feel despised or demonised.

    Another echo of Trump came when Le Pen wondered whether it might soon be revealed that Macron had an offshore bank account “in the Bahamas”. This morning, in a radio show, she said she “had no proof”, seemingly retracting the insinuation, but meanwhile pro-Le Pen social media had picked up on the theme.

    The whole stunt smacked of desperation – Le Pen had clearly been losing ground during the TV debate – but those who followed the USA campaign will have been reminded of Trump’s call for more hacking of Clinton’s emails.

    Insinuate there is more mud to throw around, dirty your opponent with conspiratorial allusions, and hopefully something will stick: that was her formula (the backdrop being that Macron’s team had repeatedly warned, these last months, about Russian-connected cyber-attacks).

    Yet more parallels with Trump were on offer when Le Pen accused Macron of sympathies for a Muslim activist group, and said she would immediately expel all those suspected of links with radical Islam: there was a whiff of “Muslim ban” in the air.

    Macron pushed back by saying she was setting the stage for an atmosphere of “civil war” in the country. But recklessness, hyperbole, bigotry and white-man’s anger were the toxic substances Le Pen deliberately sought to capitalise on.

    Sound familiar?

    Of course, media fact-checkers were busy dismantling most of her claims on the euro and on industrial policy, but Le Pen’s gamble was that brutal cynicism and vulgar personal attacks – including on Macron’s private life, when she said “playing the teacher and the student” wouldn’t work out with her – would help demonstrate she’s in tune with popular rage.

    It may have all backfired – a post-debate poll showed she’d lost the battle. Unlike in the USA, winning the popular vote hands you the election in France. But because this is a one-on-one contest – unlike Brexit which was less personalised – it was fascinating to watch a 48-year-old scion of the French far right seek to emulate the man who upended USA politics.

    That Le Pen reached the runoff was long predicted, whereas, in the early stages, few believed Trump would become the Republican candidate. Le Pen avoided referring to Trump as a model (although she pointed to Brexit as an achievement) because she well knows he’s unpopular in France.

    Trump had recently tweeted the French election would be “interesting”, and his close adviser Steven Bannon has a fascination for Charles Maurras, an early 20th-century ideologue of the French far right. Le Pen’s efforts to detoxify her party make it impossible for her to quote Maurras. But many of her recipes were the same as Trump’s: a string of lies, bluster, and a constant effort to speak to the gut, not the mind.

    With just three days left before the vote, it would now take an immense, unforeseen event for the cards to be entirely reshuffled. France will likely spare itself a far-right presidency – which is not to say the country’s deep-seated problems have evaporated.

    If this TV debate showed something, it is that rational, constructive, argumentative discourse, of the sort that liberal democracy must rely on to exist, increasingly looks like an endangered species.

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