French Guiana paralysed as tensions mount before strike

Marion BRISWALTER
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People eat at a barbecue at a road block in Cayenne, French Guiana, during a string of region-wide protests and road blockades

French Guiana came to a standstill Sunday on the eve of a major strike which has elbowed its way into France's presidential campaign.

Air France cancelled all flights to the South American territory for Sunday and Monday, when 37 labour unions were to launch a general strike demanding a "Marshall Plan" to improve public services and security.

Barricades have been erected on roads since last week, and the US State Department has warned travellers to stay away, citing the risk of violence.

The protests also led to the indefinite postponement of an Arianespace rocket launch at Europe's Guiana Space Centre in Kourou.

The French government has sent a delegation to negotiate with the strikers, 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.

"This has gone on long enough! All we have is plundered, it's time to recognise the people of Guiana," a woman at the barricade blocking access to the airport at Cayenne, the capital, told AFP on Sunday.

"I am listening to the Guianans," said Ericka Bareigts, the minister of overseas territories, though she has ruled out travelling to the territory for now.

"We will be able to go to Guiana once the conditions are right and progress has been made," she said.

The road barricades were temporarily lifted Sunday and some stores opened so that people could stock up on food and other supplies before the strike began.

- 'Failed policies' -

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.

The territory, with about 250,000 inhabitants, relies on huge injections of public funds.

"The government must respond rapidly to these requests," Segolene Royal, the French environment minister, said after a recent visit to the territory.

The visiting delegation has already had a scanner installed at the airport to help stop drug trafficking, and pledged to speed up the arrival of EU aide.

But several of the candidates seeking the French presidency have pounced on the crisis just a month before the first round of voting.

For Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate, "This situation is the consequence of the failed policies of Francois Hollande," the outgoing Socialist president.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, condemned what she called an "cruel minimum service" of recent governments in Paris toward the territory.

In response, Bareigts, the overseas territories minister, and Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said Sunday after a meeting with Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve that "We will not tolerate any exploitation of this social crisis, neither to disrupt public order nor for campaign purposes."

A similar revolt gripped French Guiana in 2008 over soaring fuel prices, shutting down schools and the airport.

The strike ended after 11 days, when the government agreed to cut fuel prices.

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