French Guiana

views updated May 29 2018

French Guiana

Culture Name

French Guianese

Alternative Names

Guyane Francaise


Identification. Christopher Columbus sighted the Guiana coast in 1498 during his third trip to the New World. The French first settled the land one hundred years later, calling it Guiana, the French form of an American Indian word that means "land of waters."

Location and Geography. French Guiana is on the northern coast of South America. It is nestled between Suriname to the west and Brazil to the east and south. It covers approximately 34,750 square miles (90,000 square kilometers), about the same size as Indiana. The close proximity of the equator (which lies a few degrees south) contributes to the hot and humid climate, which averages 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) all year.

There are three main regions: the coastal plain in the north, a hilly plateau in the middle, and the Tumac-Humac Mountains in the south. Most of the interior (83 percent of it) is dense tropical rain forest. There are more than twenty rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean from French Guiana. The most important of these are the Oyapock, which forms the southeastern border with Brazil, and the Maroni, which forms the border with Suriname.

Demography. The 1998 population in French Guiana was approximately 167,982. Around 40 percent of the population lives in the capital of Cayenne. African and Afro-Europeans make up 66 percent of the total population with Europeans making up another 18 percent and east Asians, Chinese, Amerindians, and Brazilians making up the remainder. In the sparsely populated interior the Oyampi and Palik tribes still follow a traditional pre-columbian way of life. There are also a few tribes descended from African slaves who escaped from plantations to live a lifestyle similar to their native central Africa.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is French. All business and most common dialogue is conducted using the mainstream French. The native tribes in the interior, however, use their own language, and the African tribes use Taki-Taki, a pidgin English.

Symbolism. The heavy influence of the French culture is evident throughout the country, and in the capital many of the customs and attitudes of France predominate.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The Arawak Indians are the people first known to inhabit French Guiana. The next major waves of people were the Caribs. These peoples came from the Amazon and traveled to the Antilles (most of the islands of the West Indies). The Caribs displaced many of the Arawak. During the age of discovery and Christopher Columbus's journeys, the Caribs were still traveling through the Caribbean.

The French were the first Europeans to settle in French Guiana. They arrived in the early 1600s, when many of the European powers were colonizing the Americas and looking for the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Between the climate and Indian attacks the first settlement was a failure. In 1634 the French settled again and this time they did not leave. Cayenne was founded as the capital some time later and it has remained the country's largest city.

Plantations were established in parts of the land, forming an economic base. Following a series of agricultural failures and culminating with the abolition of slavery in 1848, most of the plantations closed. One of the agricultural settlements located in Kourou became the infamous Devil's Island penal colony. France had sent many political prisoners to French Guiana during the French Revolution; now the most hardened and notorious criminals and dissidents were also sent over the ocean to the penal colony. In nearly one hundred years of operation Devil's Island received more than seventy thousand prisoners. All camps were closed in 1945.

Twenty years later Kourou was once again in the spotlight of France and receiving its people. This time, however, scientistsnot prisonerswere arriving, to construct and operate the European Space Agency's rocket-launching center.

In 1946 French Guiana ceased being a colony and became an official overseas department of France. The 1980s saw the rise of a pro-independence party, but ultimately the group lost power because the majority of French Guianese support being a part of France.

National Identity. In the political and cultural sense there is no national identity. The nation for the French Guianese is France. The diversity of ethnic groups and the lack of common history add to the problem of internal national identity. The Amerindians living in the central part of the country seem to identify the least with the French and European way of life.

Ethnic Relations. A complex weave of ethnicity and culture forms French Guiana's population. The Creole population, itself a large mix of ethnicity and culture, comprises the largest ethnic group and has had the greatest influence on the country's culture. Fewer than one hundred of the native settlers, the Arawaks, currently live in the central part of the country. The Caribs have a few small communities along the coast and have mingled with the Creoles. There is also a noticeable settlement of Vietnamese who came over in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. The cultures interact fairly well and inherently adopt and adapt to local flavors. Considering the small population, the larger culture is forced to recognize all of its peoples.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

With the exception of the Amerindian tribes in the interior, most people live in one of the cities. Cayenne alone has 40 percent of the population. Houses range greatly in size and uniqueness, but the relative prosperity that results from living under the French flag allows the houses to be built of decent quality, and almost all have running water and electricity. They are usually painted light colors such as blue and yellow in keeping with the Caribbean Creole style. Small gardens are often annexed to the houses. The Amerindian residences in the interior are usually simple thatched roof huts, following tradition.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The diversity of cultures has given the local foods their flavor. Caribbean and Creole style foods are common along with Western foods and such Asian cuisines as Vietnamese and Chinese. Seafood, especially shrimp, is eaten quite often. Rice accompanies most of the dishes.

Basic Economy. The economy is closely tied to France. Shrimp and other seafood production is the major economical asset. The space agency has become the second most important asset, with predictions for even more growth. Forestry of the untapped interior holds economic potential. Sugar-cane and other cash crops are grown by the agricultural sector.

Commercial Activities. Family members still comprise the farm labor. Locally grown vegetables and fruit are sold in markets along with fish and meats. The demand for livestock is heavy and likewise can be profitable for the sellers. Small craft-work is sold to both tourists and locals. The building materials for these crafts and for carpentry projects are also sold. Among the major buyers of these materials are the many small-scale construction companies. The service sector is also important at the local level.

Major Industries. The major industries are shrimp and fish processing and aerospace. Lumber and construction are secondary industries. The agricultural products are sugar, rice, manioc, cocoa, vegetables, and bananas. Cattle, pigs, and poultry are the main livestock animals.

Trade. The major exports are shrimp, lumber, gold, rice, rum, rosewood essence, and clothing. In 1997 the exports totaled $148 million (U.S.). France bought the bulk of the products, more than 60 percent, with the United States, the European Union, and Japan buying the rest. French Guiana has always bought much more then it sold, resulting in high trade deficits since its inception. In 1997 the country imported $600 million (U.S) of goods, such as processed meats, grains, machinery, fuels, and chemicals. The largest import partner is of course France, with Germany, Belgium, and the United States making up the remainder. A large national debt has accrued because of the constant trade deficit.

Division of Labor. The total labor force in 1997 was 58,800. The bulk of the labor force (60 percent) fell within the service, government, and commerce sectors. Industry accounted for 21 percent and agriculture 18 percent. Unemployment was at nearly a quarter of the total labor force and affected mostly younger workers.

The fishing and forestry sectors rely on local, many times unskilled, labor. The space center in Kourou employs some of the most educated persons in the world. In addition to scientists, the space center employs numerous lower-skilled workers to pave roads, construct buildings, transport goods, and perform service functions ranging from food production to hotel management.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. The heavy subsidization by the French government has resulted in much more disposable income than if the country would have to rely on its own products alone. This helped create the highest standard of living in South America. The rural parts of the country see the least of the relative prosperity.

Symbols of Social Stratification. The common indicators of wealth in the Western world are also relevant in French Guiana. These include French-fashioned clothes, larger houses, and education.

Political Life

Government. French Guiana is a part of the French Republic and thereby subject to the same regulations and political hierarchy as France. There is a general council that handles local affairs and the relationship with the republic. It is composed of sixteen elected officials from each canton. They elect a president of the department.

Regional councilors are elected by proportional representation of the political parties. This council involves many of the same tasks as the general council but focuses more on long-term economic issues. A prefect, appointed from Paris, technically has the most power in the department but is usually relegated to military and security duties as the local officials are given more say in the running of the country. Two deputies and one senator are sent from French Guiana to Paris to serve in the national parliament. The judicial branch is the same as mainland France with the highest local court based on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

Leadership and Political Officials. The leader credited with exerting the most influence in regard to French Guiana becoming an overseas department is Gaston Monnerville. He was the elected deputy in the years 19321946the last year of his service being the year that departmentalization was enacted. Another important political figure of the time was the mayor of Cayenne, Constant Chlore. He was the founder of the only communist party in French Guiana and became integral to trade union pacts. Since that time French Guiana has had a rotating cast of local politicians in favor of and against French rule. As of 2001, the locally elected prefect was Dominique Vian.

Social Problems and Control. French Guiana has had no major human rights abuses in recent times.

Military Activity. The defense of borders is a responsibility of France. This military includes the French Forces and the Gendarmerie. The availability of men fit for service was thirty thousand in 1999.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Local officials are in charge of social planning.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

European agencies, trade unions, and other associations with France are prevalent in French Guiana.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Women are generally responsible for tending to the children and other household tasks. The men are in charge of providing financial support. This holds especially true in the rural areas, although there is some variation among the different ethnic groups.

The Relative Status of Women and Men.

Business and politics are governed by the French system. There is no systematic discrimination against women, but women tend not to be in the upper echelon of either field.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Most marriage ceremonies take place within the church, as is the custom in most of South America.

Domestic Unit. Families have followed a Western trend of becoming smaller. The average birthrate is 3.31 children per woman. Regardless of size, families maintain their closeness through activities and religion.

Kin Groups. As with families, the members of larger kin groups tend to be close and live within close proximity to one another.


Child Rearing and Education. Schooling is compulsory until age sixteen. Primary schools exist all over the country, while secondary schools are located primarily in Cayenne and large towns. The educational system is the same as in France and has contributed to the literacy rate of more than 80 percent.

Higher Education. Professional and university level students get their education overseas, usually in France. Because of the students' European Community status, they are granted all the same privileges as European students.


French values permeate French Guiana. Dress is Western in style in the sense that light colors and short sleeves are worn in warm climates. The people are generally known for their friendliness, although the indigenous peoples in the interior see very few foreigners and therefore may appear to be wary at first.


Religious Beliefs. The vast majority of French Guianans are Roman Catholic. There are many other religions practiced by the minority groups. These include indigenous Amerindian shamanistic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Africanbased religions.

Death and the Afterlife. The Catholic rituals are followed, including a cycle of prayers upon death and a funeral at which friends and family gather.

Medicine and Health Care

All medical affairs are handled by the State Department of Health. This department works with such organizations as the Pasteur Institute to eradicate diseases. Vaccinations are free and compulsory for tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio, yellow fever, and measles, mumps, and rubella. There are high incidences of malaria (almost six thousand cases in 1995), dengue fever, and various sexually transmitted diseases. A number of AIDS cases have ended in death, accounting for approximately 10 percent of all adult deaths.

There are seven medical doctors per ten thousand people, but these doctors are available only in urban areas. The average life expectancy is 76.4 years.

Secular Celebrations

All major French holidays are celebrated, including Bastille Day, Labor Day, and the Catholic holidays.

The Arts and Humanities

Performance Arts. The various ethnic groups value dance and music. The urban areas listen to modern music; the tribes of African origin produce drumbeat-driven rhythms; and the Amerindians focus more on wind instruments such as flutes.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

French Guiana has perhaps more diversity then any other country in the world in this regard. The interior population has learned little or nothing of the sciences, while on the coast the European Space Agency leads one of the most sophisticated operations in the world. The future seems to hold more of this great divide.


Burton, Richard, and Fred Reno, ed. French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana Today, 1995.

Gall, Tim, ed. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, 1998.

Rajewski, Brian, ed. Countries of the World, 1998.

U.S. Government, Central Intelligence Agency. CIA World Factbook, 2000.

David Matuskey

French Guiana

views updated Jun 08 2018

French Guiana

French Guiana, country on the northeast coast of South America between Suriname and Brazil and the only French territory in South America. A Département d'Outre-Mer (Overseas Department—DOM) of France since 1946, La Guyane, as it is officially called in French, encompasses some 35,600 square miles of a narrow coastal savanna (where most of the inhabitants live and work) and an extensive and largely unsettled wilderness interior. The extraordinarily diverse population of an estimated 199,509 (2006) is overwhelmingly black or racially mixed but not homogeneous culturally: Creoles are fragmented into locally born, Haitians, French Antil-leans, Brazilians, Dominicans, Maroons, Colombians, Surinamers, and more. The remaining perhaps 20 percent is made up of whites, mostly metropolitan French, as well as of Chinese, Lebanese, Hmong (Laotians), Javanese, Vietnamese, and various Amerindian groups. Although it is potentially rich in gold, timber, bauxite, and fish, French Guiana has a standard of living that is the result of massive subsidies from France meant to extend metropolitan social and economic benefits to this distant but integral part of France. The official language is French, though a number of other languages are regularly used by various ethnic groups. The predominant religion is Roman Catholic, but various ethnic groups have their own faiths.

French Guiana
Population:199,509 (2006 est.)
Area:35,600 sq. mi
Offical language:French
National currency:Euro
Principal religion:Predominantly Roman Catholic
Ethnicity:Black or mixed-race 66%; white 12%; East Indian, Chinese, or Amerindian origin 12%; other 10%
Capital:Paris, France
Annual rainfall:Averages 140-160 in

Although the French had been around the Guianas since the fifteenth century, it was not until 1664 that a permanent French colony was established at Cayenne, the present capital. Amerindian attacks and rivalries among the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English made successful colonization precarious at best. In the late seventeenth and again in the early nineteenth centuries Cayenne was briefly occupied by the Dutch and the Portuguese, respectively. During the eighteenth century the colony was under French control but never grew in population or wealth, as did neighboring Dutch Suriname and the French Antillean colonies of Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.

French Guiana was chronically short of capital investment (in labor, particularly African slaves), of settlers (who might have established plantations and farms), and of technology (to build the water control systems needed for agriculture to prosper). One result was that plantation agriculture barely established itself. A number of plans were made to overcome labor deficiencies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; all were disappointments, especially those aimed at recruiting large numbers of French farmers. The plantation economy prospered briefly in the early nineteenth century, when slavery was reimposed in 1802 after a short period of emancipation during the Revolution. Cotton, sugar, and annatto were exported, as were some spices and hardwoods; both sugar and cotton lost out to international competition by mid-century. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848, and the former slaves moved from plantations and onto wilderness lands as private cultivators, further weakening the plantation sector. Some Asians were imported as contract laborers to replace slaves, but this failed to stop the steady decline of the plantation sector and the small white planter class. By the twentieth century there was no locally born, white planter elite left, in contrast with Martinique and Guadeloupe.

The postemancipation developments of greatest import were not related to plantation agriculture. First, a gold rush lasting from the 1870s until the Great Depression made gold the major export, pushed the center of economic activity into the interior and away from the coast, and enticed the immigration of fortune seekers from many parts of the world.

The wealth extracted was allowed to leave the colony, and never served as the basis for reinvestment, development, and local productivity, although it did encourage the survival of a myth of great wealth in the interior.

The second development involved immigration of inmates from overcrowded French prisons. Intended originally to populate the colony with prisoners who would be given land and a chance at a new life through small-scale farming, the scheme degenerated rapidly into the transformation of Guyane into a penal colony during the reign of Napoleon III. This innovation has given French Guiana its international reputation as Devil's Island. Devil's Island, one of the milder prison camps, achieved notoriety due to the incarceration in 1895 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whose plight was publicized in Emile Zola's famous open letter "J'accuse." The prison complex on the coastal islands and mainland was shut down in the late 1930s but did not officially close until 1947.

Agriculture continued to decline, and by 1942 was unable to produce enough food to feed the local population. In 1946, the colony's status was changed to that of DOM. The economic benefits of that change have raised the standard of living while, paradoxically, the local level of productivity has declined. As an integral part of France, Guyane is more dependent on public subsidies now than before. Unemployment runs at about 25 percent. Average per capita income is about U.S. $2,800, placing French Guiana in the middle income range of Caribbean countries.

Political parties in French Guiana tend generally to debate the degree of local autonomy that might be desirable within French nationality. The independence movement is minuscule, less than even that of Martinique and Guadeloupe, in part a result of having accepted settlers and refugees from throughout the former French empire who are particularly pro-French and loath to loosen their bonds to France. "Decolonization through integration" of former colonies into the French state continues to be French policy supported by most Guianese.

Today, French Guiana is particularly important to the French because of the huge space station and rocket-launching facilities at Kourou, begun in the 1960s, which services the European Community.

See alsoSlavery: Abolition; Slave Trade.


Jean-Claude Michelot, La Guillotine sèche: Histoire du bagne de Cayenne (1981).

Pierre Pluchon, Louis Abenon, et al., eds., Histoire des Antilles et de la Guyane (1982).

Jean-Claude Giacottino, Les Guyanes (1984).

Neuville Doriac, Esclavage, assimilation et guyanite (1985).

Anne-Marie Bruleaux, Régine Calmont, and Serge Mam-Lam-Fouck, eds., Deux siècles d'esclavage en Guyane Française, 1652–1848 (1986).

Kenneth Bilby, "The Remaking of Aluku: Culture, Politics, and Maroon Ethnicity in French South America" (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1990).

Additional Bibliography

Cardoso, Ciro Flamarión. La Guyane française: 1715–1817: Aspects économiques et sociaux: contribution à l'étude des sociétés esclavagistes d'Amérique. Petit-Bourg: Ibis rouge, 1999.

Mam-Lam-Fouck, Serge. La Guyane française au temps de l'esclavage, de l'or et de la francisation (1802–1946). Petit-Bourg: Ibis Rouge, 1999.

Polderman, Marie. La Guyane française, 1676–1763: Mise en place et évolution de la société coloniale, tensions et métissages. Petit-Bourg: Ibis Rouge, 2004.

Redfield, Peter. Space in the Tropics: from Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

West, Alan. African Caribbeans: A Reference Guide. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003.

                                   Rosemary Brana-Shute

French Guiana

views updated May 21 2018

French Guiana

Basic Data

Official Country Name:Department of Guiana
Region (Map name):South America
Literacy rate:83%

French Guiana, which sits between Brazil and Suri-name on the northeastern coast of South America, has a colorful history. It boasts the speech and press freedoms of France and supports two major newspapers, France-Guyane (appears daily) and La Presse de Guyane (publishes four times per week). Both titles are French-language and are printed in the capital city of Cayenne. Neither maintains a presence on the Internet.

There are 16 radio stations operating in French Guiana (two AM and 14 FM) and three television stations, serving 104,000 radios and 30,000 televisions. There are two Internet service providers.

Originally inhabited by Carib and Arawak Indians, control of the country has shifted between France, Britain, the Netherlands, Brazil, and Portugal until it was finally confirmed as French in 1817.

Soon after, France established a notoriously brutal penal colony on Devil's Island, which lies in shark-infested waters about nine miles from shore. The prison operated until the 1950s. In 1946, French Guiana was officially declared an oversees department of France.

Accordingly, the chief of state is the French president, who operates through a prefect appointed by officials in Paris. Local administration is handled through a 19-member general council and a 31-member regional council. The population of French Guiana is approximately 175,000, and the literacy rate is 83 percent. The official language is French but Creole is widely spoken.

The economy is closely linked with France through subsidies and imports and most of the country is an undeveloped, tropical rain forest. In 1964, France established the Kourou Space Center that contributes significantly to the gross domestic product. Fishing and forestry also play important roles in the economy.

Benn's Media. Vol. 3, 147th Edition, p. 297.1999.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). World Factbook 2001. 2001. Available from 2002. Available from

Jenny B. Davis

French Guiana

views updated Jun 11 2018

French Guiana

Basic Data
Official Country Name:Department of Guiana
Region:South America
Literacy Rate:83%

French Guiana, an overseas department of France governed by the French Constitution, is located on the northeast coast of South America, adjacent to Brazil and Suriname. The educational system there is modeled after that of France.

Between 1980 and 1993, enrollment increased by 70 percent at the primary level and by 87 percent at the secondary level. Education, which is free, is mandatory for children between the ages of 6 and 16. Primary education lasts for five years; school enrollment at that level is nearly 100 percent, with the exception of the more remote areas of the country, such as the settlements of the Amerindians and Maroons, where resources are much more limited.

Secondary education is broken up into two cycles: a four-year program that concludes with the Brevet de College examination and an additional three-year program that culminates with the Baccalaureat examination, successful completion of which is required for entrance into tertiary institutions.

Higher education in the country is limited to teacher training and agricultural colleges and the University Antilles-Guyane, which offers postsecondary studies in administration, French language and literature, and law. Many students seeking higher education attend universities in France or the French Antilles.

The primary language of instruction at all levels is French, an issue that has been the subject of much debate given that many indigenous groups speak other languages. Also, the Guyane Educational Authority for Primary, Secondary, and Higher Education, based in Cayenne, is a decentralized government department that oversees the educational system in French Guiana.


Crant, Phillip A. "La Guyane: Past and Present." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Pacific Northwest Council on Foreign Languages, Portland, April 1975.

"French Guiana." In Europa World Yearbook. Pittsburgh: Europa Publications, 1999.

Reno, Fred, and Richard D. Burton, eds. French & West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana Today. University Press of Virginia, 1995.

AnnaMarie L. Sheldon

French Guiana

views updated May 14 2018

French Guiana


90,000sq km (37,749 sq mi)



capital (population):

Cayenne (50,395)


Overseas department of France

ethnic groups:

Creole 42%, Chinese 14%, French 10%, Haitian 7%


French (official)


Catholic 80%, Protestant 4%)


Euro = 100 cents

French overseas department in South America.

Land and Climate

The coastal plain includes cultivated areas, particularly near the capital, Cayenne. The River Maroni forms the border with Surinam, and the River Oyapock its e border with Brazil. The climate is hot and equatorial, with high annual temperatures. Rainfall is heavy, although August to October is dry. Rainforest covers c.90% of the land and contains valuable hardwood species. Mangrove swamps line parts of the coast; other areas are covered by tropical savanna.

History and Politics

The original inhabitants of the area were Native Americans, but today only a few remain in the interior. Europeans first explored the coast in 1500, and they were followed by adventurers seeking El Dorado. The French were the first settlers (1604), and French merchants founded Cayenne in 1637. It became a French colony in the late 17th century, with a plantation economy dependent on African slaves. It remained French except for a brief period in the early 19th century. Slavery was abolished in 1848, and Asian labourers were introduced to work the land. From the time of the French Revolution, France used the colony as a penal settlement, and between 1852 and 1945 the country was notorious for the harsh treatment of prisoners. Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned on Île du Diable. In 1946, French Guiana became an overseas department of France and, in 1974, also an administrative region. An independence movement developed in the 1980s, but most people wanted to retain links with France and receive development aid.


Despite rich forest and mineral resources, it is a developing country with high unemployment. It depends on France to finance services, and the government is the main employer. Since 1968, Kourou has been the European Space Agency's rocket-launching site. Industries: fishing, forestry, gold mining and agriculture. Crops include bananas, cassava, rice and sugar cane. Exports include shrimps, timber, rum, and rosewood essence.

Political map

Physical map