Strikes to hit French Guiana as tensions paralyze territory

Masked members of the collective "500 Brothers" are pictured at a roadblock outside the French Guiana capital, Cayenne, Monday, March 27, 2017. The Collective of 500 Brothers, the group largely behind the protests who have demanded that the French government send a minister to negotiate with them. French Guiana faced a nationwide strike Monday over crime and economic difficulties, amid protests that have paralyzed the French territory in South America, halted flights and a rocket launch and prompted a U.S. travel warning. (Deborah Neusy/France Guyane via AP)
General view of a roadblock set up in Remire-Montjoly near the French Guiana capital, Cayenne, Monday, March 27, 2017. French Guiana faced a nationwide strike Monday over crime and economic difficulties, amid protests that have paralyzed the French territory in South America, halted flights and a rocket launch and prompted a U.S. travel warning. (Deborah Neusy/France Guyane via AP)

PARIS — French Guiana faced a strike Monday over crime and economic difficulties, amid protests that have paralyzed the French territory in South America, halted flights and a rocket launch and prompted a U.S. travel warning.

The French government has sent an emergency mission to try to quell tensions in the territory of a quarter-million people before Monday's general strike by some 27 unions.

Protests have already blocked roads to neighboring Brazil and Suriname, and shuttered many businesses and schools. Air France canceled all flights Sunday and Monday because of the strike. Flights from regional airlines to the city of Cayenne were canceled.

As tensions mounted, French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced plans to send a high-level ministerial mission before week's end aimed at signing a pact addressing anger over high crime, the cost of living and the quality of health care and other social services.

The Collective of 500 Brothers, the group largely behind the protests, has been demanding that the French government send a minister to negotiate with them. The group, initially created to focus on fighting crime, includes dozens of men wearing black clothes and black hoods to hide their faces.

The unrest is a reminder of the deep economic, social and racial divides between France's mainland and its former colonies from the Caribbean to the South Pacific that remain French today. Some territories use the euro currency, and they all depend heavily on imported goods and policy decisions made in Paris.

Candidates for France's two-round April-May presidential election have urged aid or intervention in Guiana, as the concerns of overseas voters suddenly entered the spotlight.

Ericka Bareigts, the French government minister for overseas holdings, called for calm Monday, and said on RTL radio that the government mission has made progress on demands from fishermen and farmers. However, she said "conditions for dialogue are not met" for her to visit Guiana herself.

The ambitious pact includes aid to the agriculture sector, the construction of a penitentiary and a new court to meet demands and security needs.

French Guiana senator Antoine Karam told BFM-TV the population has been ignored despite grave problems, such as 50 percent unemployment among young people and 30 percent of the population lacking drinking water or electricity in their homes.

"We're not treated in the same way as the mainland French," he said, despite French Guiana being the site of Europe's Ariane rocket launches.

A visit by Segolene Royal, the French minister of ecology, to the territory on March 17 was cut short after masked demonstrators from the Collective of 500 Brothers stormed a regional conference on biodiversity she was attending in Cayenne.

Protests also disrupted the planned launch last week of an Ariane 5 rocket from the space center in Kourou that was carrying a South Korean satellite and a Brazilian satellite.

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning because of the potential for the protests to turn violent, saying its citizens should avoid travel to French Guiana.

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