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Cazeneuve promises French ministers will visit strike-hit Guiana

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Roaodblocks erected by protesters in French Guyana Jody Amiet/AFP

French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has announced that a delegation of ministers will visit French Guiana this week, where a general strike for improved public services and security started Monday.


Following criticism of Overseas Territories Minister Ericka Bareigts's refusal to go to France's one South American territory, Cazeneuve said ministers would visit "before the end of the week".

But he added that "the conditions of respect - and I insist on this point - and republican order must be fulfilled".

The protests, which started with barricades being erected on roads last week, have closed school and universities, disrupted business and led to the indefinite postponement of an Arianespace rocket launch at Europe's Guiana Space Centre in Kourou.

Europe's first-ever all-electric satellite has been stuck in a container on board an Antonov airplane at Matoury airport for several days, according to the centre's director, Joël Barre.

Air France cancelled all flights to French Guiana on Sunday and Monday.

The US State Department has warned travellers to stay away, claiming there is a risk of violence.

Crime, unemployment, poverty

The strike call was issued by 37 unions, under the umbrella of the UTG federation, and is supported by campign groups, including the 500 Frères (500 Brothers), who demonstrate with their face masked.

The "Collective to Get Guiana Moving" has called for better access to health services and electricity, economic development and job creation programmes, and renewed efforts to keep children from dropping out of school.

With 250,000 inhabitants, an unemployment rate of over 22 percent and the highest murder rate of any French territory, Guiana relies heavily on public funds.

Mayors boycott government delegation

The French government has sent a delegation to negotiate with the unions, asking them to lay out their demands.

But 13 of the territory's 22 mayors have refused to meet the delegation, demanding, along with the strikers, that French ministers come in person.

Bareigts this weekend said she would not go because the "conditions for dialogue are not present at the moment".

"Of course, I can go," she declared. "But the conditions for dialogue must exist, the conditions for a calm, republican dialogue, with people showing their faces."

Environment Minister Ségolène Royal cut short a visit on 18 March after masked men burt into a meeting she was attending, chanting "We've had enough!" in the local dialect.

They called on Royal to inform the government of the high crime rate in the territory and she declared that it "must respond rapidly to these requests" on her return to Paris.

The head of the delegation, Jean-François Cordet, has announced that 25 police officers and 23 gendarmes will be sent to the territory and that the heavily indebted hospital in Cayenne would be given a grant of 60 million extra euros.

Presidential candidates attack government

Bareigts blamed "10 years of state neglect" for the situation and, along with Interior Minister Matthias Fekl and Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, slammed right-wing presidential candidates for "exploiting the social crisis" and "disrupting public order for campaign purposes".

That was in response to Republicans candidate François Fillon and National Front's Marine Le Pen who slammed the government over the crisis at the weekend.

Fillon blames it on the "failed policies of François Hollande", while Le Pen lambasted the " "cruel minimum service" of recent governments of both the mainstream right and left.

The Green party's Yannick Jadot, who has stood down in favour of the Socialists' Benoît Hamon, on Monday joined the fray, saying he could not understand why Bareigts has not gone to Guiana.

Hamon himself said that the territory should have the right to "equality and security" and centrist Emmanuel Macron, while on a visit to the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, called for calm.

A strike and protest movement in Guiana in 2009 over soaring fuel prices, spread to France's other overseas territories and ended after 11 days, when the government agreed to cut fuel prices.

Historian and political scientist Françoise Vergès says the discontent behind the strike is the same that led to demonstrations in 2009.

“Close to 50 percent of the population live under the poverty line," she told RFI. "A lot of young people, children, leave school after primary school with no diploma, more than 50 percent. But life is very expensive. Everything is imported from France and there is very little local industry. It’s mostly commerce and consumption. So nothing much.”

Vergès says the territory’s problems cannot be blamed on any one administration.

“It’s a situation within the French republic that is still post-colonial, that has not been deeply transformed. Of course you can see progress, you can see roads and hospitals and schools, but they are deeply dependent on France, they long to have a local economy that would allow them to live by themselves, they can’t even feed themselves, local agriculture has been mostly destroyed. So it’s a low level crisis that gets some publicised moments like this one but the level of constant crisis is always there.

“This crisis is not new, so they [residents of French Guiana] have the feeling, whether they do something or not, it’s never followed by real concrete decision or action. And therefore they wonder if they are sent again a delegation what is going to change. And it’s also a struggle, they are building and showing the government that they can absolutely paralyse the entire territory. And if the government does not want to listen, they can say they can go on like that.”