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Forever France

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Guyane, or French Guiana, boasts baguettes, a beautiful coastline, a rich ethnic mix – and a glimpse of Devil’s Island. By Jonathan Fryer

The French were so much better than us British when it came to hanging on to the most delectable bits of empire. Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands somehow don’t have quite the same cachet as Tahiti or Martinique.

The largest by far of France’s remaining overseas territories, as well as being the least well known in the English-speaking world, is Guyane, or French Guiana. This is comprised of more than 32,000 square miles of tropical rainforest, with a northern coastline fringed with mangroves. Guyane is bordered by some of the most inaccessible districts of Brazil’s Amazonia and of Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana. But its main airport provides an umbilical chord to the mother country through a daily flight to Paris-Orly operated by Air France.

Only 250,000 people inhabit this verdant land that is four times the size of Wales, but Guyane boasts a rich ethnic mix. The indigenous Amerindians live mainly along the rivers in the interior, subsisting on fishing and by making and selling handicrafts. In the towns one finds descendants of the African slaves who used to work in the now largely defunct sugar and banana plantations that had been owned by the early colonisers. Then there are the more recent Chinese immigrants who seem to own all the small convenience stores, as well as running Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and take-aways. Haitian migrant labourers are at the bottom of the social pile, with French settlers, naturally, at the top. Most exotically, there are also about 20,000 ethnic Hmong from Laos. They were transported to Guyane by the French when the latter pulled out of Indo-China in the 1950s, as many Hmong had fought alongside the French forces against the Communist Pathet Lao guerillas and their equivalents in Vietnam. These days the Hmong in Guyane mainly run vegetable holdings that supply the central market in the capital, Cayenne. This is housed in one of those splendid wrought-iron structures that one finds in many parts of South America.

Not counted in censuses, deep in the forest and hidden from view, there are unquantifiable numbers of illegal Brazilian garimpeiros, panning for gold, with which the territory is well endowed. The mercury the garimpeiros use as part of their primitive hydraulic mining technique poisons the area’s water courses and sometimes the prospectors themselves. Others who strike lucky will occasionally get shot by rivals. This is as near as the modern world comes to the old Wild West and should be avoided at all costs. Unlike Europeans, Brazilians need a special visa to go to Guyane, but that requirement does not stop the garimpeiros from slipping over the frontier.

Cayenne, after which the celebrated pepper is named, boasts some fine old colonial administrative buildings that are grouped at the base of a hill on top of which still stands a fort that was established to guard the entrance to the town’s small port. Most of the houses in the centre of town are wooden and attractively painted in a variety of pastel shades. But in the suburbs there are villas that would not look out of place in a provincial French town. Being part of France means that Cayenne’s bakeries produce delicious fresh baguettes every day, while on the outskirts of town there is a gigantic Carrefour supermarket selling everything from electrical white goods to paté de foie gras and champagne. A public bus conveniently stops right outside, though it does not run very frequently. People who shop

at Carrefour are normally expected to have cars.

The French have always liked to discipline their gardens; accordingly the principal green space in the centre of Cayenne features serried ranks of very tall and slender palm trees. One can gaze out at them from the veranda of the Hôtel des Palmistes, an atmospheric old colonial building that has been sensitively converted into boutique accommodation with all mod cons (but no swimming pool). The pasta and pizzas served there are among the best in South America. There are plenty of other restaurants within a short walking distance, including a branch of the French chain Hippopotamus.

In the evening, Cayenne’s otherwise sleepy main street is briefly enlivened by the presence of off-duty French soldiers who gather for a beer or to watch football matches in the one sports bar. They are there partly to try to control the activities of the Brazilian garimpeiros but mainly to protect the European space station that is located at Kourou, an hour or so’s drive along the coast. One can watch the launching of the Ariane rockets from there perfectly clearly while sitting on a park bench by the sea in Cayenne.

To get to Kourou (which is out of bounds on the days when a rocket launch is taking place) it is best to hire a car. The few public buses are inconveniently timed and taxis from Cayenne are prohibitively expensive. But it is from Kourou that one can get a catamaran over to the Iles du Salut, just a few miles offshore. The islands got their name of ‘salvation’ because early missionaries found safe sanctuary from the plague there. But later the name contained a bitter irony, as for almost exactly a century up until 1953 the islands housed penal colonies for the most dangerous French criminals. The most notorious was Devil’s Island (Ile du Diable), where poor Captain Alfred Dreyfus was incarcerated for nearly five years after a shameful and anti-Semitic miscarriage of justice. Devil’s Island has never had a landing stage; men and supplies were transported there over the water from the neighbouring Ile Royale by a primitive teleferic contraption. This fell into the sea a few years ago and has not been replaced, and it is now impossible to get to it at all.

Anyone trying to escape from Devil’s Island faced almost certain death from being smashed against the rocks by the waves of the cruel sea or by being eaten alive by the sharks that circle around it. One must therefore take with a large pinch of salt some of the claims made by ‘Papillon’, the convicted murderer Henri Charrière, who made a fortune from his eponymous autobiography, which was later turned into a major Hollywood movie (shot on the Ile Royale) starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Charrière was almost certainly held on the Ile Royale, from which escape was theoretically possible, though very difficult. Even in that island’s penal colony a very high percentage of the prisoners died, from malaria, inhuman punishments or rancid food.

Today the islands look idyllic from the hilltop restaurant on the Ile Royale, where one can order tasty seafood, freshly caught and enjoyed with fine French wines. But as one walks along the usually deserted coastal path, past the natural rock pool where some of the most privileged prisoners were allowed to bathe, one is reminded by history that Paradise can sometimes be Hell.

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now