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article imageDemonstrators occupy French space station in Guiana

By AFP     Apr 4, 2017 in World

Around 30 protest leaders in French Guiana attempted to occupy a rocket-launching space centre on Tuesday, escalating demonstrations that have crippled the territory in South America for 10 days.

Workers have launched protests and strikes demanding pay raises and improved public safety, creating a fresh crisis in the last few weeks of outgoing President Francois Hollande's unpopular term in office.

Labour leaders rejected a government offer of a billion-dollar aid package on Monday and are demanding 2.5 billion euros ($2.67 billion) instead for a "Marshall Plan" to develop the often overlooked overseas territory.

After visiting the world-renowned French space centre in Kourou on Tuesday to meet its director, about 30 leaders said they would not leave until the government met their demands.

"We won't move. The situation is stuck and Guiana is blocked. You are blocked. We want the billions we have asked for," protest leader Manuel Jean-Baptiste told the director of the space centre.

The Kourou centre has become a symbol of economic disparity in Guiana, a heavily forested landmass wedged between Suriname and Brazil on the northeastern shoulder of Latin America.

On March 20, angry residents blocked the planned launch of a rocket that was to place into orbit satellites for Brazilian and South Korean operators, in one of the first signs of public anger there.

Rundown homes and potholed streets ring the Kourou centre -- and these are for the relatively lucky few in a territory where many of the 250,000-strong population live without electricity or running water.

"Kourou is a political, technological and financial success. It is the flagship of European technology," Youri Antoinette, an engineer at the space centre and spokesman for the residents of Kourou, told AFP.

"But once you leave the space centre, you're in an under-developed country."

The unemployment rate in Guiana is 23 percent, and nearly twice this for 18-25-year-olds, while per capita income is about half of the rate in mainland France.

- Rockets but no lights -

"The rockets go up but we don't have any lights," said Martin Marsi, a 25-year-old who lives near Kourou, sporting sunglasses under a backwards baseball cap.

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

The basic wood-and-concrete structures are an improvement on what one resident called the "favela" that was here before, part of which was gutted by a fire in 2006.

French Guiana
French Guiana

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.

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.

Guiana has been administered as a French region since the end of 18th century and it was also used as a place to send convicts for forced labour between 1852 and 1946.

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