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A Part of France but Worlds Apart

Cultural contrasts abound in French Guiana, where living standards are higher than in its South American neighbors.

January 12, 2003|Ian James | Associated Press Writer

ST. LAURENT DU MARONI, French Guiana — The funeral begins with slow, synchronized clapping by the dead man's neighbors, seated in a circle beside a calabash tree.

A village elder pours a libation of rum and says in his Nengee Tongo Creole: "Spirits, come and help us." Another elderly man adds, "Accept him in paradise."

Across town from this village of descendants of escaped slaves, known as Maroons, whites from mainland France congregate at a cafe on Rue Victor Hugo, laying down euros for cafe au lait and baguettes.

It is one of many cultural contrasts in a land torn between its ties to faraway France and its place in South America.

The French began to settle the remote land on South America's northeastern coast in 1604 and have found uses for it ever since.

They brought slaves to work their farms and built an infamous penal colony where they could isolate convicts.

Those roles have long since faded -- replaced since 1979 by Ariane rockets that thunder skyward carrying satellites from a European space center five degrees north of the equator.

An overseas department of France since 1946, French Guiana is officially just as much a part of France as Provence or Bordeaux.

Nearly the size of Indiana, it is still mostly covered with vast rain forests. But it has more than doubled its population to about 180,000 in the past two decades, amid a steady flow of immigrants from neighboring Brazil, Suriname and elsewhere.

With its close ties to Europe, French Guiana attracts more jobs and has a higher standard of living than Suriname, which gained independence from the Dutch in 1975, and nearby Guyana, which left Britain's colonial empire in 1970.

Although estimates of per capita income vary widely, government figures of about $11,000 a year are higher than comparable World Bank figures for any South American country.

In some areas, though, children still play in the dust outside dilapidated shacks. At least one in five adults is unemployed.

Some people born in French Guiana are resentful that whites from mainland France hold many high-paying jobs as civil servants.

"Here, I know I'm a white person," said Sophie Alby, 30, an adult education teacher from mainland France. "Whenever there's a conflict here, it becomes an ethnic conflict."

Still, although no polls have measured public sentiment, many Guianese interviewed on the street say they are proud to live under the French flag. Less than 10% of voters supported pro-independence candidates in 2002 legislative elections.

That doesn't deter the small independence movement, whose leaders push for the freedom of what they consider South America's last colony.

"We cannot negotiate our dignity," pro-independence politician Maurice Pindard said. "Here, there is a lot of racism because the legionnaires are white people, the gendarmes are white people, the judges, the prosecutors."

But the majority seem to consider independence unthinkable.

Basic goods, including milk and flour, are imported from mainland France. Guianese often travel to Europe to visit relatives who have immigrated, and they watch satellite TV programs beamed from France.

"We live facing Europe and France more than South America," said Jean-Pierre Aron, a political leader in Cayenne, the capital.

Many politicians, however, want more autonomy for French Guiana's General Council, a legislature that disburses funds to build schools and roads, but has little independent authority to make laws.

"Now the French government makes laws and they send them to us and they say, 'Tell us if you agree.' They just ask that as a courtesy, but everything is decided," legislator Alain Tien-Liong said. For immigrants, access to the euro makes French Guiana an attractive destination. Higher wages lure people from as far away as Haiti and Peru. Without enough jobs to go around, though, the newcomers sometimes stir resentment.

"There is a lot of unemployment because there are a lot of foreigners," said Jean-Paul Parize, 53, a Guianese security guard. "They work for nothing."

The new arrivals join black Guianese known as Creoles, indigenous Indians, Maroons, Chinese, white Europeans, Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia and others.

More than 20 languages are spoken in French Guiana, but the only official tongue is French, and it is the language taught in schools.

In the western town of St. Laurent du Maroni, some Maroons speak little French and prefer their Nengee Tongo Creole. The dusty roads of their village bear the names of shamans and elders: Tolinga, Toto, Orsini.

Cultural barriers lead many people to live in separate enclaves. Surinamese and Brazilians crowd into shantytowns. Wealthier urban Guianese buy condominiums. Maroons keep to villages where hunters trudge home carrying dead iguanas.

"People live together, but they don't mix," said Patrick Lamande, a Frenchman who runs a jungle inn near the border with Brazil. "It's like a boiling pot. Maybe one day it's going to explode."

Protests by independence supporters in November 2000 blew up into riots in which at least nine people were injured in clashes with police.

But some suggest that French Guiana is making peace with its multicultural heritage. On the radio, sensual zouk music mixes with Parisian ballads.

In the outdoor markets, Hmong farmers sell limes, ginger and bananas while Chinese offer noodles. Brazilians run butcher shops. Peruvians sell tapestries embroidered with images of llamas.

Peruvian storekeeper Ricardo Saldana, 43, says he is becoming a French citizen after living here for 18 years.

"It's my country now," he said.

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