French Guiana: The Most Valuable French Colony Of The 21st Century – Analysis


French Guiana is an overseas department and region of the Republic of France located on the northeastern coast of South America. This French overseas territory is located in the geographic region of The Guianas, which in addition to French Guiana includes Guyana and Suriname. It borders Brazil to the east and south and Suriname to the west and has access to the Atlantic Ocean.

With an area of 83,534 square kilometers (that’s the approximate area of Serbia), Guiana is the second largest French region and the largest overseas region of the European Union. The official currency is the euro and the region is fully integrated into the EU. Although it is 7,216 km away from Paris, even in the 21st century, Guiana remains the most precious French colony that Paris doesn’t want to give up.

French colonialists occupied the Guyanese coast in the first half of the 17th century and established the first settlements and small plantations there. Battles ensued between the French, the Dutch and the British for control of the valuable area, which became attractive because it was believed to be rich in gold. French King Louis XV in 1763 sent thousands of settlers to Guiana who were lured by stories of an abundance of gold. Instead of gold, they found a land full of hostile natives and tropical diseases. A year and a half later, only a few hundred of them survived. In 1794, a large number of political opponents of the French Revolution were deported to the territory of Guiana. Later, slaves were brought from Africa, and plantations were established along the rivers. The export of sugar, wood and spices brought some prosperity to the colony for the first time.

Although Guiana was taken over by Portuguese Brazil in 1809, it was returned to the French by the Treaty of Paris in 1814 and became an official French colony. In 1852, it became a home for French convicts. In the following period until 1938, more than 70,000 detainees from the entire French empire were deported to Guiana. During World War II, the local government declared its allegiance to the collaborationist government in Vichy, despite widespread support for Charles de Gaulle’s liberation movement. In March 1943, the Guyanese government nevertheless joined Free France. Finally, in March 1946, Guiana became an integral part of France as a department. The notorious penal colonies, including Devil’s Island, were gradually abolished and then officially closed in 1951.

For all its charms, however, French Guiana is best known for its space center, which was established in 1964 and has been in operational use since 1968. The French space center isn’t located in Paris or Marseille, but in Kourou. It is known as the Guiana Space Center. The main reason why the space center is located there is the proximity to the equator. If the rocket is launched closer to the equator, the launch is more efficient (25% compared to the launch from Europe), and the rotation of the Earth helps the rockets to reach a higher speed. The emergence of the space center encouraged the employment of the local population, and numerous foreign technicians arrived as well as hundreds of soldiers (including the French Foreign Legion) to prevent sabotage and bring order to the region. In the 1970s, refugees from Laos who fled from the invading communists arrived in Guiana and settled in the towns of Cacao and Javouhey.

The movement for greater autonomy from France gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, along with the growing success of the Guiana Socialist Party. The voices of the autonomists who wanted greater freedom in relation to France became louder over time. Protests were held in 1996, 1997 and 2000 and ended in violence. Although many Guyanese want more autonomy, support for full independence is relatively low. In January 2010, a referendum was held on whether Guiana should become an autonomous overseas territory of France. Voters rejected the idea with 70% of votes, and voter turnout was 48%. Since December 2015, the department has been managed by the Assembly of French Guiana within the new Territorial Community of French Guiana. That Assembly replaced the regional and departmental councils, which were dissolved. The current president of the Assembly of F. Guiana is Gabriel Serville. In March 2017, the largest ever protests and strikes were held in the region, fueled by the poor state of the economy and neglected infrastructure. In 2020, Marie-Laure Phinéra-Horth became the first woman from Guiana to be elected to the French Senate.

Guiana has a very low population density: only 3.6 inhabitants per square kilometer. Half of the approximately 300,000 inhabitants live in the area of the capital Cayenne, while the interior of the region is mostly uninhabited. As the name suggests, cayenne pepper is named after the capital city of Guiana. Other larger towns are Matoury, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Kourou and Rémire-Montjoly. Guiana is very rich in parks and nature. 98.9% of the land territory of the country is covered by forests, and a large part of them is the Amazon rainforest. Tropical climate prevails. The Guiana Amazonian Park is one of the largest national parks in the European Union, covering 41% of the region’s territory. Less than 1% of the land surface is cultivated. Guiana is rich in ecosystems, of which savannas, coastal mangrove forests and swamps stand out. It is famous for its carnival that lasts for a month as well as for its diverse cuisine that includes dishes from indigenous, Brazilian, Asian, European and other communities that have inhabited this French department over time.

Despite being home to a European spaceport, Guiana struggles with extreme poverty and unemployment, a legacy of its history as a slave society and prison colony – the infamous Devil’s Island is just off its coast. For Guiana, the space center brought numerous negatives: the region suffers from the “Dutch disease” – the rapid development of one sector (the space industry) encouraged the decline of other economic sectors. The Dutch disease is a typical indicator of the colonial legacy and the colonial reality that the region continues to suffer. Although France as a whole profits from Guiana’s space industry, its residents benefit little.

The majority of the population works in the service sector. Of the agricultural crops, corn, rice, cassava, pineapple and banana are the most cultivated. In addition to agriculture, the population is engaged in animal husbandry and fishing. There is a smaller processing industry such as fish, meat, grain, wood processing, and there is also the production of rum. The country is rich in minerals such as gold, bauxite, clay and cinnabar. Today, gold is Guiana’s second export resource after the space industry. It is estimated that an average of 10 tons of gold is illegally mined annually and that between 6,000 and 10,000 gold prospectors reside illegally in Guiana. Illegal activities of searching for gold and other minerals result in the clearing of large areas of forests, pollution of rivers, armed conflicts, the spread of diseases such as malaria, etc. This is a big problem for the French authorities. During 2018, in Operation Harpia, 765 illegal places where gold and other minerals were mined were destroyed. However, this didn’t stop illegal mining.

Due to its poverty and favorable geographical location, French Guiana became a drug hub for Europe. Suriname, with which it shares a long border in an almost impossible to monitor jungle, is even poorer, and many of the mullahs who come to the country are precisely illegal migrants from the former Dutch colony. The center of drug operations in Guiana is the city of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, located on the wide, brown Maroni River that forms the border with Suriname. A kilogram of cocaine bought for 4,500 euros in Guiana, or 3,500 euros in neighboring Suriname, can be sold to dealers in France for 35,000 euros, who then chop it up and sell it to their customers for three times the price. Mules receive between 3,000 and 10,000 euros per trip, depending on the amount of drugs they transport. In 2021, 512 mules were arrested, and 1.26 tons of cocaine were seized.

Small (about 2,000 soldiers) but well-equipped and trained military forces (including the French Foreign Legion) are constantly present in Guiana in garrisons in Cayenne, Kourou and Saint-Jean-du-Maroni. The military’s formal goal is to protect the space center, monitor the borders with Suriname and Brazil to combat illegal immigration, illegal gold prospectors and illegal fishing. In fact, the military presence is tasked with deterring local autonomist and independence movements as well as suppressing a potential armed uprising should it occur.

Precisely, thanks to its modern colonial empire under the guise of liberal democracy, it can be stated that the Republic of France is still a powerful force on a global scale. Definitely, the most powerful country within the European Union. Why is Guiana so important to French policy makers? French Guiana, along with French Polynesia, has first-class importance for France and one could say for the European Union as well. Without F. Guiana and the space center there, there would be no independent French and EU space policy. Without F. Polynesia, the French would have no place to test their nuclear weapons and do nuclear research. It is precisely the area of F. Polynesia that is the most isolated area in the world where nuclear tests were conducted. Thanks to the excellent geographical position of the two modern colonies, Guiana and Polynesia, as well as other smaller overseas French territories around the globe (New Caledonia, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, etc.), France has the world’s largest maritime area, which is rich in marine and underwater wealth.

The combination of the space, nuclear and naval industries represents a strategic advantage that only the USA and Russia have on this scale. It is well known that the use of nuclear energy for civil and military purposes, the use of space and the exploitation of ocean resources will be three important sources of geopolitical power in the 21st century. With due respect to all other French overseas territories, due to its space industry and strategic location on the mainland of the South American continent, it can be argued that French Guiana is the most valuable jewel in the modern French colonial empire, which is in all but name.

The fact that deep in the 21st century France, Great Britain, the USA and the Netherlands legally have their own overseas territories shows that we live in a hypocritical world and that international law is interpreted selectively. It can be seen that the UN Charter and the right to self-determination are sometimes applied and sometimes not, depending on interests. It’s clear that the great powers still have power and can legally occupy territories thousands of kilometers away from their home country and no one thinks of imposing international sanctions on them. On the other hand, some smaller states aren’t even allowed to conduct an independent foreign policy. However, this has always been the case throughout history and this is not new. The hope remains that in time sovereignty will overcome imperialism in one form or another.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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