Strikes in French Guiana halt launches at Guiana Space Centre
KOUROU, French Guiana — Mass protests, driven by unions and public outcry over crime rates and unemployment issues, have shut down operations at France’s Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. While space exploration is not a central issue in the protests, union members have gone on strike at the spaceport to call attention to the problems facing the French department.
Realities on the ground stopping operations in space
French Guiana has been a French possession since 1664 and a French overseas department since 1947. The department became the site of the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) in 1964, with operations beginning in 1968.
In recent years, the department has faced increasing unemployment (nearly 20 percent according to a New York Times report) and a murder rate higher than any other French department.
As noted by Gauthier Horth, an opposition politician interviewed on the France 24 magazine: “Each year 6,500 young people enter the labour market, but there are only 2,000 jobs. We don’t have access to work, medical care or education. We are not equal to other French citizens.”
The public protests, led by a group called the “Collective of 500 Brothers”, have been peaceful but disruptive, with work stoppages and school closings. Private citizens have been stocking up at grocery stores in the event of potential shortages. Among the operations affected by the labor strikes have been Cayenne International Airport and CSG, where drivers prevented the rollout of an Ariane 5 rocket to the launch pad. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert for the territory.
Addressing the situation
A report appearing in the New York Times, French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced on Monday that he would send a delegation of ministers to the department later this week to assess and address the situations that led to the protests. However, the Collective of 500 Brothers called for a general strike starting March 27.
It is uncertain as yet what actions the French ministers will take during their visit or whether the protestors will consider them sufficient. However, a rapid response from Paris is likely, given the public attention the shutdown of the spaceport has caused and the approach of national elections in four weeks. According to the Times report, the last time French Guiana faced mass protests on this scale was 2008, and the demonstrations lasted one week.
The mission most directly affected by the protests is an Ariane 5 launch with two satellites aboard: Brazil’s SGDC defense communications satellite and KoreaSat-7 commercial communications. Originally scheduled for March 21, Arianespace has now postponed the launch twice due to the ongoing uncertainty in the department. The next scheduled mission is an Arianespace Soyuz launch of the SES-15 satellite on April 4. It is possible that operations at CSG will remain on hold until the general situation in the department is settled.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.