A general strike and widespread protests over high crime and economic hardship paralyzed French Guiana on Monday, as the government struggled to quell growing unrest that has disrupted travel, closed schools and thrust one of France’s often-overlooked overseas territories into the spotlight of the presidential campaign.
The French prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, announced on Monday that a delegation of ministers would travel to the South American territory by the end of the week to try to address demands by protesters, who have refused to negotiate with lower-level officials.
The unrest has shuttered schools and blocked access to the main airport; prompted a travel alert from the State Department of the United States; and even postponed the launch of an Ariane 5 rocket, carrying a Brazilian satellite and a South Korean satellite, from the aerospace center that France and the European Space Agency run off the territory’s coast. Roads to neighboring Brazil and Suriname were also blocked.
French Guiana, which has a population of around 250,000, was settled by the French in the 17th century, becoming a slave colony and then a penal colony. The latest protests have been the largest in French Guiana since 2008, when a strike lasting longer than a week shut down schools and the airport, and compelled the government at the time to cut fuel prices. And there is a long history of such unrest, according to Stephen Toth, an associate professor at Arizona State University who has written a history of French Guiana.
“French Guiana has always had a rather unfortunate reputation as an economic backwater whose general neglect by French officials is only periodically interrupted by outbreaks of political protest and acts of violence by various local groups demanding greater economic investment in the region,” Mr. Toth wrote in an email.
One of France’s five overseas departments, the territory uses the euro, but the economy is heavily dependent on imports and on subsidies. In 2009, the overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, both islands in the Caribbean, were paralyzed for over a month by similar strikes, which sometimes turned violent.
“One gets the impression that the government doesn’t perceive that the population is fed up,” Antoine Karam, a Socialist who represents French Guiana in the Senate, the upper house of the French Parliament, told the BFM TV news channel on Monday.
“We are not treated the same way as the French in the Hexagon,” Mr. Karam said, referring to mainland France. He also noted that the proportion of inhabitants without access to drinking water or electricity was much higher in French Guiana than it was on the mainland.
Gross domestic product per capita in the territory is less than half what it is on the mainland, and unemployment, more than 20 percent, is about double.
Crime is also a major concern. One group of protesters, who wear balaclavas and call themselves the Collective of 500 Brothers, has been behind many of the demonstrations calling for greater security.
Mr. Cazeneuve, the prime minister, said that solutions would not be found “amid disorder,” but he acknowledged the widespread sentiment that the territory had been neglected.
“There is still much to do to develop French Guiana,” Mr. Cazeneuve said from Paris. “In the French Republic, each citizen must be able to benefit from the support and solidarity of the state.”
Mr. Cazeneuve announced several measures, including the construction of a new penitentiary to relieve prison crowding. Over the weekend, the French authorities had already announced police reinforcements and increased funds for the hospital in Cayenne, the territory’s capital.
The protests have illuminated the deep economic, social and sometimes racial divide between mainland France and its overseas territories, which are the remnants of the French colonial empire.
Lines formed at stores and gas stations over the weekend as people rushed to stock up on goods before the strike, which a group of 37 unions voted on Saturday to carry out for an unlimited period of time.
With four weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, the unrest has become a focal point of the campaign, and candidates across the spectrum spoke profusely about a region of France that usually gets little attention from politicians and the news media outside of electoral seasons.
François Fillon, the embattled center-right candidate, said last week that the crisis was the “consequence of the failed policies of François Hollande,” the Socialist president. Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front party, told Europe 1 radio on Monday that French Guiana was “swamped by illegal immigration,” and she accused the government of “averting its eyes.”
Ericka Bareigts, the minister for France’s overseas territories, responded on the BFM TV news channel by saying that “Ms. Le Pen discovers the overseas territories every five years and then comes to lecture us.” In his statement, Mr. Cazeneuve also hit back at what he called “demagogy and electoralism.”
At a rally in Rennes on Sunday, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist candidate in the presidential election, called for better access to health and education services.
Other candidates have been tripped up by past or new statements illustrating how France’s overseas territories are only marginally discussed in regular political debate.
The independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, who is predicted by polls to beat Ms. Le Pen in the second round of voting in May, was widely mocked on social media for referring to French Guiana as an “island” — which, unlike many other French overseas territories, it is not.
His campaign later attempted to justify his use of the word by saying that he was referring to the “Île de Cayenne,” or “Isle of Cayenne,” a term used to designate the area surrounding the capital.
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a right-wing presidential candidate, was also in the news for statements he made in 2014 suggesting that the authorities create a detention center in Cayenne for jihadists, to “isolate these raving lunatics.” (On Monday, he apologized for the comments.)
Miranda Frances Spieler, a historian at the American University of Paris and the author of a book on French Guiana, said that the territory’s legal structure as an overseas territory made it ill-suited to address local challenges like immigration and kept it dependent on the French state.
“The people of French Guiana are trapped in an administrative and legal structure that on the one hand guarantees them French-style institutions and benefits and on the other assures that local people will never be able to prosper there,” Ms. Spieler said in an email.
“The economic problems that now confront France have led to a decline in the quality of local public services in French Guiana and local people cannot make up the difference because they are poor,” she said. “For structural reasons, the postcolonial economy of French Guiana can never prosper on its own.”
©2017 The New York Times