France has kept its former imperial outposts close – but some feel the distance. Are they happy being a part of the fraternity?
The sunny terrace of the Hôtel des Palmistes in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, hosts an eclectic mix of customers. Visiting businessmen from nearby Martinique toast deals with ti’ punch, young couples peruse the menu and US tourists order rounds of planteurs. Officers en route to oversee French Foreign Legion training at the Jungle Training Centre 100km away make an occasional appearance.
The hotel, which was built in 1890 in the traditional Creole style, has done a roaring trade since its renovation in 2014. “It was physically difficult work,” says Alexia Souidi, who runs the hotel and led the renovation, together with the owner and French architect Pierre Bortolussi. “But it’s been super for everybody in the downtown area.” New businesses, including a wine shop, ice cream parlour, arthouse cinema and bookshop, have all sprung up.
Despite these signs of prosperity, it wasn’t long ago that Cayenne was swept with unrest. French Guiana is one of France’s poorest departments: per capita income is just €15,000, less than half the average in France. Discontent over living standards here – a sizeable portion of Guiana’s 300,000 population live in Cayenne – sparked riots and a general strike a month before France’s 2017 presidential election. A masked group known as The 500 Brothers spearheaded demands for Paris to address issues such as unemployment, a neglected healthcare system and poor education. In response, France authorised an emergency relief plan of up to €2.1bn, double the amount previously earmarked for the department.
The unrest has now been quelled – and there is even a silver lining. “The protests were good for business,” says Souidi. “They brought international attention and finalised projects.” Yet resentment over what some perceive as neglect remains in some circles. “It’s the ultra-periphery of France,” says Michel Dubouillé, general-secretary of the Guyane Écologie, a green political party. “I am not a separatist,” he says. “Few people in Guiana are. What we want is equality with France. Structural development has never happened here.”
French Guiana feels as far removed from Paris as the 7,000km of ocean that separates them suggests it would. Situated a few degrees above the equator in the northeast corner of South America, the department – which is about the size of Portugal – is mainly uninhabitable jungle. It was here that, in 1852, Napoleon iii set about establishing a French penal colony. Until as late as 1946, thousands of convicts were sent here. The most dangerous or politically sensitive prisoners were cast 11km offshore on the notorious Île du Diable (Devil’s Island), where today kitesurfers crisscross the strait. While Suriname and Guyana, Guiana’s two westerly neighbours, were granted independence more than 40 years ago by the Dutch and British, respectively, France held on to its outpost, elevating it to the status of “department” in 1946. French Guiana has no semi-autonomous status, unlike France’s overseas collectivities. “We’re 50 years behind other parts of France,” says Marie-Laure Phinéra-Horth, Cayenne’s mayor, in her office inside a faded yellow chateau, now the town hall, that is adjacent to downtown’s central Palmistes Square. A framed photo of Emmanuel Macron hangs on the wall beneath a humming air-conditioning vent.
Phinéra-Horth’s city grapples with problems that will be familiar to those in France: high levels of immigration, unemployment and crime. Cayenne’s population has almost doubled since she was elected mayor in 2010, from about 60,000 residents to a little more than 100,000, according to unofficial estimates. As a gateway to a life in Europe, Cayenne has become a destination for immigration – both legal and otherwise – from many of its poorer South American neighbours, particularly Brazil and Suriname. Foreign nationals account for 35 per cent of the country’s population, compared with 6.4 per cent in France.
Yet Phinéra-Horth remains fiercely ambitious about her plans for the future of Cayenne. “I want to redevelop the old harbour and the water canals, building a promenade downtown with new transport links,” she says – and she believes that Paris is supportive. Partial funding for her plans has already been secured through the wider Action Coeur de Ville programme to develop French cities and towns, which was signed in September 2018. Cayenne will be allocated a slice of the €5bn earmarked for 222 urban areas over the next five years. One of the main burdens for residents is the high cost of living and high levels of youth unemployment, that hovers around 44 per cent and, the mayor says, encouraging crime and violence related to drugs.
Le Centre Spatial Guyanais (csg) is the island’s only large source of industry. Rockets carrying satellites into orbit cut through the humid sky above the city from the port of Kourou about once a month. This is one of the the largest spaceports Europe has access to. Scattered across 69,000 hectares of marsh, it provides 1,700 direct jobs and twice as many indirect jobs through local services, according to csg, contributing to about 15 per cent of gdp.
But even this can be controversial. “The satellite represents ongoing colonialism,” says entrepreneur Yannick Breme, who was born a few miles from the space station. It is leased to international companies and governments by the European Space Agency. During the 2017 demonstrations, the site was occupied by protesters, delaying a launch. Mineral exploration has also been a source of controversy. Last year multinational companies requested a licence to create a huge goldmine between two protected nature reserves. Montagne d’Or, a joint venture between London’s Nordgold and Canada’s Columbus Gold, is supported by Macron and mayor Phinéra-Horth as it promises to provide much-needed jobs. But a public debate over the mine is underway.
Environmentalists such as Dubouillé vehemently oppose the “megamine” and are furious at the thought of a decision being taken by people who are “disconnected from daily life here”. The government in Paris will ultimately determine what happens; Cayenne remains, in that respect, just like any other French city. A growing number of people from French Guiana are keen to make their own opportunities. Hoteliers, such as Alexia Souidi of Hôtel des Palmistes and those setting up restaurants and cafés downtown, are eager for Cayenne’s tourism industry to expand. Some are seeking entrepreneurial solutions to citywide problems. Beyond rum and small-scale fishing, exports are low. Local production has never been encouraged so shops rely on costly imports from France, with the occasional marmalade from the Caribbean.
Jean-Hubert François is hoping to change that. The 37-year-old and his wife took out a loan in 2010 to cultivate land 40 minutes outside the capital. More than half of last year’s produce from this 20-hectare farm was sent to France, primarily sweet potatoes, which workers are currently busy scrubbing down surrounded by lush grass. The rest of François’ harvest, including bananas, manioc (a starchy root that’s native to South America), passion fruit and free-range eggs, are sold to local markets. This year François is building a pig farm and installing new machinery. He is confident that he can double exports.
“I want to develop professional agriculture,” he says, pulling open the door of a chicken coop. “We must think about tomorrow.”
Facts & figures:
Population: 243,000 (official, World Bank); 320,000 (unofficial)
Major languages: French (official), Creole
Major religion: Catholicism
Head of state: Emmanuel Macron
Overseas status: Same political status as a department in mainland France. Represented in the National Assembly, Senate and Economic and Social Council. Votes to elect members of the European Parliament (mep). Guiana is excluded from certain domestic statistics, such as the unemployment rate.
Famous French Guianese: Christiane Taubira, former justice minister under François Hollande.
When cruise ships visit New Caledonia’s capital, Nouméa, their passengers often want to see the city’s most famous landmark: the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre. The institution, which was designed by Renzo Piano in the 1990s, is filled with exhibits explaining the history of New Caledonia’s indigenous inhabitants, the Kanaks, who make up 39 per cent of the archipelago’s population. The displays are not always uplifting: photos show Kanaks who were displaced from their land after the French annexed New Caledonia in 1853 and placards describe how Kanaks only gained the right to vote in 1957.
Often, though, what is most disturbing to visitors is the sight of the Kanak-occupied shanty houses that pepper the mangroves on the Cultural Centre’s periphery. The makeshift dwellings are a symbol of how pervasive racial inequality remains in modern-day Nouméa and there is a growing campaign for change. For many Kanak leaders in the city (and further afield), a key part of the solution is to sever New Caledonia’s ties with France. This group vigorously pitched their case last November, when the archipelago held a long-awaited independence referendum, but the result did not go in their favour. Of the 140,000 people who turned up for the ballot, 56 per cent voted for New Caledonia to remain a French territory.
Emmanuel Macron’s response to the result was tempered: he described it as “a sign of confidence in the Republic”. Throughout the voting process, he and prime minister Édouard Philippe were at pains to present themselves as neutral mediators. Both, however, are acutely aware of what is at stake: the continuity of France’s strong influence in the Pacific. Don’t consider the matter settled: the same accord that allowed the archipelago’s authorities to stage last year’s vote stipulates the option of holding two further independence referendums before 2022.
Saint-Denis became Réunion’s capital in 1738, less than a century after the tiny Indian Ocean island was colonised by the French to serve as a waystation for ships travelling to India. Unlike nearby Mauritius, which became independent from the UK in 1968, Réunion remains very much a part of France.
About a fifth of the island’s ethnically diverse population of 870,000 live in this colourful city on its northern coast. Dense and bustling, Saint-Denis is draped across hilly terrain; apartment blocks line a seafront populated with joggers and cyclists and elegant villas dot the hillsides. The city exudes Gallic flair with its pavement cafés and boulangeries but the city’s diversity – emphasised by its longstanding tolerance and various waves of migration – is on proud display too: mosques, Hindu temples and churches lie in close proximity to each other and the culinary scene is a real melting pot.
But Saint-Denis is not without its problems: widening inequality, a high cost of living and stubbornly high unemployment have led to sporadic protests that have rocked the city over the past three decades. Most recently the protests against a rise in fuel prices and taxes that gripped metropolitan France spread here; French soldiers were deployed in November to quell the unrest and looting.
Despite these grievances, there is little appetite for independence. That’s not surprising: residents are eligible for France’s welfare system, which is among the most generous in Europe, and the island receives large subsidies. Life expectancy here – 83 years for women and 76 for men – is among the highest in Africa. The poverty and instability of nearby independent islands, such as Madagascar and the Comoros, offer Saint-Denis’ citizens a stark reminder that, while life might not be perfect, it’s preferable to be part of France than set adrift.
The capital of Martinique – one of two French departments in the Caribbean, alongside Guadeloupe – Fort-de-France is the largest city in the French West Indies. Even so it’s not exactly bursting at the seams: the population is a little more than 80,000.
The city was founded in the 17th century by European settlers who built a fort on the site to protect themselves against the Dutch and English (the original Martinique settlement of Saint-Pierre had been deemed too exposed and was subsequently destroyed in 1902 by the eruption of Mount Pelée). Perhaps the city’s most famous resident was renowned scholar and author Aimé Césaire, one of the major proponents of the “Négritude” literary movement. He also had an extraordinary political career, representing Martinique as a deputy in France’s National Assembly between 1946 and 1993, as well as serving as mayor of Fort-de-France between 1945 and 2001 (he died in 2008 at the age of 94).
Today Fort-de-France is principally sustained by the tourists that visit Martinique on cruise ships. Other industries include oil refining, fishing, agriculture and rum production. The city – and the rest of the island – isn’t without its problems: it continues to be reliant on Paris for its economic development and there is a large trade surplus. Despite having among the highest standards of living in the Caribbean, unemployment is high: nearly 27 per cent of the active population was out of work compared with 11 per cent in France, according to statistics from 2015.
The city’s mayor, Didier Laguerre, has promised change. He hopes to entice young people back to downtown districts via urban-renovation projects, including the creation of more pedestrian areas and fresh licks of paint for the town centre, as part of his “Fort-de-France 2020” project. Time will tell whether his ambitious plans are more than cosmetic.
French Polynesia, a string of palm tree-lined islands and atolls in the South Pacific, might seem like paradise but Emmanuel Macron could face trouble when he is expected to visit Papeete, its capital, in March. Last year’s independence referendum in New Caledonia has inspired its fellow French overseas territory to make a renewed push for its own vote on self-determination, even though the archipelago enjoys a high degree of autonomy thanks to its president and legislature.
A major source of grief is the three decades of nuclear testing that France conducted here until 1996. Paris has been slow to clean affected areas and offer compensation to those affected – and French Polynesia’s president, Édouard Fritch, recently caused uproar when he admitted to lying about the safety of the radioactive tests.
Macron’s slated visit to Papeete is timed for an annual meeting of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association, which aims to improve economic development among former European colonies from the Caribbean and South Pacific. Fritch currently serves as its chairman (the position rotates) and the French Polynesian president has plenty on his to-do list: high unemployment and limited housing are the most pressing issues. Tourism is the main source of income but money often ends up in foreign hands. Financial transfers from France make up around 30 per cent of the country’s gdp – and that complicates any move for independence.
The constant tussle between independence and the status quo frames politics here. Fritch’s party, Tapura Huiraatira, wishes to maintain current arrangements with Paris while developing closer regional ties but this can be tricky. French Polynesia was admitted to the Pacific Islands Forum in 2017 even though some sovereign members of the intergovernmental organisation worried about the return of colonisation via the backdoor.