Most backpackers leave South America with thrilling tales of partying in Brazil, eating steak in Argentina and seeing Machu Picchu in Peru. But very few return home with stories from French Guiana. Mainly because they haven’t been. Lots of them probably don’t even know it exists.
These travellers might feel they’ve sampled the flavour of South America, but the truth is that they’ve missed out a little. French Guiana is an adventurous traveller’s dream; it’s exotic, exciting and boasts a curious mixture of culture that’s well worth exploring. For most people in the UK relocating to France means a short hop across the channel, but in a wonderful quirk of politics and history, travelling across the Atlantic can also technically constitute ‘moving to France’.
So what’s this Latin/French fusion all about? What’s the European influence? And how has French colonial rule affected the destiny of this tiny country?
A Little Bit of History
Like the rest of South America, the area known today as French Guiana was inhabited by indigenous tribes. However, whereas the rest of the continent fell under Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule, France claimed Guiana. In the mid-18th Century the French saw the area as an ideal location for a settlement to complement its outposts in the Caribbean, and began sending would-be settlers there in their thousands.
The Portuguese snatched the Guiana colony for themselves in 1809, but the French soon won it back and French Guiana has been part of France ever since. Unlike most countries in South America, which gradually seized independence under the leadership of heroes such as Simón Bolivar, French Guiana has never ‘risen up’ against its European government. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a groundswell of support for greater autonomy, although this demand for control has faded since.
What are the lasting effects of French involvement in French Guiana? Well, the most obvious legacy is language; officially it’s French, though many local languages exist too. Racially, the 230,000 population of French Guiana is just as diverse as the spread of languages, with a large mulatto population claiming a mix of African and French ancestry. There are a large number of South American-born citizens, but also a significant population of immigrants from mainland France, Haiti, China and other European countries. It’s a travel cliché to call somewhere a ‘melting pot’, but if any country justifies that phrase it’s French Guiana.
Culturally French Guiana is similarly mixed. The attitudes, values and beliefs of the people are mainly a mix of European France and Latin traditions. You’ll find Caribbean, Creole, Western and Asian food. With such a blend of cultures it’s hard to say that the country has a national psyche, but it unquestionably identifies itself as a part of France. It has inherited Catholicism from France as its primary religion, but obviously other faiths are followed by minority communities.
As a backpacker you probably won’t have a great deal of interaction with French Guiana’s politics, but it’s worth knowing that the Head of State is actually the president of France and the little South American outpost is technically part of the European Union. The French president appoints a ‘prefect’ to French Guiana – a sort of cross between a prime minister and ambassador – and French Guiana sends representatives to the French National Assembly. Clearly, the administration of French Guiana is fully integrated into the mainland French political system. Confusing.
In terms of defence and protection of their borders, French Guiana is heavily dependent on France. They lean greatly on the mainland economically, too; France provides goods, trade and subsidies. Fishing, mining and timber are the biggest industries in French Guiana, but manufacturing and agriculture is underdeveloped and a quarter of its GDP comes from the French-driven Guiana Space Centre. Tourism is a growth industry, and being travellers and backpackers, this is your opportunity to investment in the country when you visit South America.
So France’s impact on French Guiana is not so much a historical legacy, but an active real-world influencer. The culture, language and traditions of mainland France are ingrained into French Guiana society, but the tiny South American nation is also very much dependent on its mother country as an administrator and provider. As a backpacker, French Guiana offers an amazing opportunity to experience a mix of Latin and European cultures – both independently and blended together.
So the next time you get a chance to visit South America, get off the usual backpacker trail and head north, to the coast and cultural diversity in French Guiana.