French Guiana protesters block space launchpad amid multibillion-euro aid row with Paris

French Guiana protesters block space launchpad amid multibillion-euro aid row with Paris
Mass protests continue in the French overseas department of Guiana, as public anger focuses on the space launchpad in the Kourou commune. French space officials say they hope the disruption to the launch schedule caused by the demonstrations will end soon.

Guiana has been gripped by protests for more than two weeks, as union activists and a local self-protection group organized the largest public demonstrations in the territory in years. The protesters say the French-ruled territory in Latin America has been neglected by Paris for years and is suffering from high unemployment, crime, high cost of living and a lack of investment from France.

A general strike paralyzed Guiana on Monday and the protests continue, despite Paris’ attempts to placate the demonstrators with ministerial visits and an offer of aid and more autonomy.

Guiana’s irritation with its European rulers was further fanned last week after the frontrunner for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron, erroneously called the territory an island, possibly confusing it with Papua New Guinea, an independent nation in the southern Pacific.

The space launchpad is at the focus of the protests, as locals see it as a symbol of France taking advantage of its overseas territory and offering nothing in return.

“In Kourou, the rocket takes off, but we do not benefit,” one of the protesters told AFP on Tuesday, as thousands of people staged a sit-in near the entrance to the facility while several dozen occupied the Guiana Space Center (GSC) HQ building.

“We will not move, and no rocket will be able to take off unless we have an answer to our demands,” said Youri Antoinette, a member of the For Decolonized Guiana movement, which encompasses various organizations behind the mass protest.

The protesters believe that Paris owes Guiana billions of euros in aid and say that the damage from the halt of launches from Kourou would be far worse than if their demands are met.

French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve offered €1 billion (about US$1.06 billion), but rejected the counter-demand of €2.5 billion, calling it “unrealistic.” Didier Faivre, director of the center, said he could not make any promises.

The protest has already forced the space company Arianespace to postpone the launch of two satellites from the Kourou site. Five satellites are now waiting to blast off from the GSC, and delays are threatening Arianespace plans to conduct 12 launches in 2017, with the majority scheduled to happen by the end of April.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of the French space agency CNES, said Tuesday that he hoped that the launches would soon resume.

“The French government is working very hard to find a solution, and I am very, very confident that we will resume with the launches in the coming days,” he told a space symposium held this week in Colorado Springs, US.

Le Gall wouldn’t give any timeframe for the continuation of launches and compared the Guiana protests to wildfires.

The GSC uses Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets, taking advantage of Guiana’s relative proximity to the equator for cheaper launches and the open sea to safely dispose of launch debris.