Kourou and Cayenne, French Guiana
Another day, another aquatic border crossing. Just taking one of those small rickety pirogues to the other side, that’s all — that’s a little step down from the ferry between Guyana and Suriname. Wait, why is everybody speaking French now? Why is my phone welcoming me to… Martinique? And now my phone’s stuck in the wrong time zone, one hour behind the local time.
This town looks a little run down. The road out to Kourou seems quite empty, and huh… hello corrugated steel shacks. Haven’t really seen them that much this trip until now.
Oh look, there’s a freakin’ space rocket.
French Guiana is an actual department of France (simply referred to as Guyane, “gwi-yann”) — that is, nominally treated no different than any other part of France, except that it’s not in the Schengen Area. It uses the euro. People speak European French, though some also speak French creole. It’s a similar situation to that of St. Pierre and Miquelon, located off the coast of Newfoundland, and it’s the only part of South America that isn’t an independent country. But yet… this place seems woefully undeveloped. French prices, wild South American conditions.
I spent the majority of my time with people from the métropole: European French people who chose to relocate. And man, these people are super nice! With barely any tourism infrastructure to speak of, including a severe lack of affordable accommodations and public transport, I couchsurfed with host Olivier in Kourou, hitched a one-hour ride with friendly private bus driver from Kourou to Cayenne (roughly 60 km), couchsurfed again with host Manu and his girlfriend Daga in Cayenne, and had complete strangers Océanne and Valérie stop their car and insist on driving me to meet Manu just before dark when they saw me at a bus stop waiting for the infrequent bus. I don’t know if any of you will ever find this, let alone understand this non-French blog, but for looking out for me and patiently dealing with my choppy French — les mots “merci beaucoup” ne suffisent pas.
Over meals and conversations with them, I learned about a French Guiana very easy to love, even if relocation wasn’t the most desired option originally. Olivier moved here for his then-wife’s work, and has stayed for nine years even after she moved back, enjoying excursions into the forest and islands. Manu looked for teaching jobs three years ago in other overseas regions of France, but found all the desirable ones — Réunion (off the coast of southeastern Africa), Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin (all Caribbean islands) — all taken, settling for French Guiana but realising soon enough an incredibly active lifestyle full of aquatic sports like kitesurfing and pirogue rowing, one that he’d never have in his hometown of Paris. Daga’s family moved as refugees from Laos to metropolitan France, before settling almost 25 years ago in French Guiana due to the large, well-established Laotian population here. They all adore this place. It may be more expensive than the metropole, but there’s similar comforts, lots more space, a great coastline if you don’t mind the perfectly swimmable water looking brown, great food, plenty to do, and life is still in their language.
They all acknowledge, however, that the game is completely different for local guyanais. But let’s wind back a bit here.
Kourou is an odd little city. There’s no city centre, just a couple odd scattered streets with commerce, and then lots and lots of houses. There’s a military base smack dab in the middle of the city, access barred from the public. There’s a very long beach… with virtually no development alongside it. No shops. Maybe one hotel?
Then like 8 km away, there’s this giant space centre, run by the European Space Agency. Unfortunately, a scheduled rocket launch that would have fit perfectly into my schedule was pushed back by two weeks, but this place indeed launches satellites. My intended visit to the space centre also didn’t work out (I settled for the small museum aimed at children), and neither did my plans to visit les Îles du Salut, a former prison island that’s now turned into a natural paradise (with an overnight jail cell and prison food experience, should you choose to pay up for it!).
The only activity I ended up doing in Kourou did turn out to be an enjoyable one: Carnaval. French Guiana celebrates the longest Carnaval out of all places that have it, pulling out the parade every Sunday in all cities and towns (there aren’t that many) for two whole months before the big finale. And sure, it isn’t Cayenne so it was pretty small, with just four groups, but the music was great, the dancers and the crowd enthusiastic, and some of the costumes particularly… interesting. (La Casa de Papel fans, anyone else?)
Cayenne, the department capital, on the other hand, impresses immediately. For one, it’s the first time I’m seeing giant malls and highways on this trip. Everyone’s driving Peugeots, Renaults, Citroens… and supermarkets are all giant Carrefours. But I’m talking mainly about the city centre and its architecture — classical French in style, a palm-lined centre, a hilltop fort overlooking colourful Caribbean houses, and of course, my favourite: plenty of bakeries! I spent two days wandering the streets, paying French prices for French quality food, snapping photos of the beautiful streets full of life, and also noting the large Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Lao populations present in commerce and food. (I sadly wasn’t able to visit the weekly Hmong market in neighbouring Cacao, having arrived a day late.)
Nearly contiguous with Cayenne, just southeast of city limits, are the twinned towns of Rémire-Montjoly. More suburban and spread out without a centre, its population seems primarily to be well-off métropolitains, with large houses, malls, and even mansions not far from a lovely, wide-spanning beach full of kitesurfers.
So now, back to the situation I’ve been tiptoeing around…
There’s virtually no economy here. Aside from the usual stereotype (true in this case) of the Asian population running supermarkets, restaurants, and souvenir shops, basically all the jobs are either to do with the space centre or the state, along with its support systems. Most of these jobs require skills and training only found in the metropole, and so plenty of people move down here, stay for three or four years depending on the job or internship, then return home. With relatively high salaries as a relocation enticement, life’s pretty great for them. But for everyone else, there’s nothing but subsistence… and French social benefits.
It’s clear from conversations that there’s a sense of helplessness and exasperation to the situation. The French government promises a lot (when it remembers that this place exists) but never delivers; many people in the metropole either think French Guiana is in Africa, don’t know that they’re paying for it through their tax dollars, or even that the place exists at all. Tourism hasn’t taken off basically because you don’t get those lovely resort photos of crystal-clear blue waters, and while there are plenty of places to explore and even indigenous or Saramacca villages to visit, there’s little outside interest or marketing for it, as in Suriname. There are no industries, no significant agriculture (everything’s imported from France), no exports, no resource development, despite the potential being there — just look at Suriname, Guyana, and northern Brazil, all in the same environment. There’s mining activity there, even if a lot of it is foreign-driven; here, there are only mines operating illegally.
Illegal immigration is an issue I heard mentioned multiple times, just like in the metropole. (When I asked about how large the population of French Guiana is, one man responded “about 350,000, but… I’d say double that number if you include all the people without papers.”) Surinamese come in from next door; Haitians, Dominicans, and Venezuelans come in through Brazil and request asylum. Have children, they’ll become French citizens. Whether you’re from here or away, you’ll also get a healthy sum of money per child per month; I heard of one rather egregious (and hopefully rare) case of one man having 18 children between five mothers, claiming social support for each one as a single father. There’s also unemployment money, another healthy amount because this is France. This entire system depends on the contributions of a working populace, but with no jobs accessible for a vast amount of these undocumented folks and the local, poor Guyanais, the money poured into the system and a healthy lack of motivation to contribute to it form a vicious downward spiral and a giant wealth gap. It’s very visible even in the centre of Cayenne — cross the bridge to the Village Chinois (no Chinese people seem to be there) and both quality of life and personal security take a sharp dive. This uncomfortable safety situation occasionally takes on a racial lens.
There’s a small independence movement, one that showed up during massive protests two years ago over the state of… well… everything. (French Guiana remains unaffected by the gilets jaunes/yellow vest movement, though that’s all you’ll see on TV here given that all the channels are from the métropole.) But what would happen if independence actually happened? You’d have a ton of French citizens, both métropolitains and Guyanais, choosing to immigrate to France, and a territory left with the poor who can’t afford the move, no space centre and no industries. Doesn’t sound like a great option.
As the bus driver who picked me up said, French Guiana was France’s Australia — the place where all the criminals were sent to, in addition to the whole slavery and plantation situation. It makes the country money, even now with the rocket launches, but the place is an afterthought. The phone and TV network being from Guadeloupe and Martinique is a sign. I heard one sentiment over and over again: la Guyane, elle est oubliée.