Rockets go up but lights are out: French Guiana's crisis

Joris FIORITI
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A protest at the Kourou space centre in French Guiana on Tuesday, part of a general strike that has paralysed the territory

The rocket launchpad in French Guiana sums up everything that angers residents in this distant outpost of France that has been paralysed by strikes.

It is from Kourou that France's Ariane rockets carrying satellites are launched, leaving a fiery trail in the sky over the northeast edge of South America.

On March 20, in one of the first signs of a growing backlash against what residents say is years of chronic under-investment by France, angry residents blocked the planned launch of a rocket that was to place satellites into orbit for Brazilian and South Korean companies.

"The rockets go up but we don't have any lights," said Martin Marsi, 23, sporting sunglasses under a backwards baseball cap.

He lives in a collection of houses in Saramaca, a few kilometres from the space centre, where residents rent the dwellings with an option to buy over the longer term.

The basic wood-and-concrete structures have running water and electricity -- which is not a given in French Guiana, home to around 250,000 people. It is a huge improvement on what one resident called the "favela" that was here before, part of which was gutted by a fire in 2006.

Look closer though and there are signs of decay. Potholes dot the roads and the children's playground is becoming rapidly overgrown with grass.

A basketball hoop has been torn down, so the children play football instead -- but only in daylight because rows of streetlights in the development "haven't worked for years," Marsi said.

- 'Under-developed country' -

Kourou is known around the French-speaking world as a symbol of French technological prowess. Dozens of rockets have been launched from here and the launchpad has created local jobs.

But beyond the complex, life is tough.

"If you don't work for the space centre, you live in poverty," said Lason Koutou Agassi, who lives with his wife and five children in a three-room house with unpainted exterior walls.

Pictures of rockets are everywhere in Kourou, yet Katou Agassi noted that his village is not connected to the internet and does not even have fixed-line telephones.

"Kourou is a political, technological and financial success. It is the flagship of European technology. But once you leave the space centre, you're in an under-developed country," said Youri Antoinette, an engineer at the space centre and a spokesman for local residents.

A protest was held at the space centre on Tuesday after French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve rebuffed demands for 2.5 billion euros ($2.7 billion) of immediate funding for French Guiana, offering one billion euros instead.

In the districts where the engineers and other employees of the space centre live, the lawns are mown and the streetlights shine brightly. High walls surround many of the houses.

"Police and a private militia make the rounds regularly," said Atoune, a 43-year-old hospital clerk.

"They look after the expats, while we have to live barricaded inside our houses," he said bitterly, recounting how his daughter had been "attacked" outside their home and had a gold chain stolen.

Schools and shops were shut by a general strike on Monday, prompting the government in Paris to dispatch two ministers to plead with the locals to halt their protests.

A collective of labour unions that orchestrated the strikes has demanded a "Marshall Plan" to improve public services and security.