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French Guiana: Europe’s Spaceport and its uncertain future

James Loughton

If one were to venture through the dense northern rainforests of the Amazon to the Guiana coast or sail to the tropical volcanic archipelago of Îles du Salut, south of the Caribbean, rockets blazing through the atmosphere would not be an uncommon sight.

Despite a 7000 km distance from Europe, French Guiana is commonly referred to as the continent’s “spaceport”.

The small South American territory is directly administered by France as an “overseas department”, outside of metropolitan France yet treated constitutionally as an integral region equal in status to mainland departments. Claimed by French explorers in the early 16th century, by the 1600s settlements and plantations were established across the northern coastline with slavery continuously practiced across French colonies despite its abolishment after the Revolution.

Colonial Guiana expanded French trade and influence in the Americas with sugar, wood and spices exports producing prosperity for its colonial administrators. However, the

colony would soon find a new purpose, housing political opponents of the Revolution and establishing a long penal tradition. Large-scale prison networks were established to house convicts sent from mainland France, producing a significant military presence. Guiana’s strategic importance saw it survive as other colonies gained their freedom during the 20th century and after France lost control over Algeria and its CIEES spaceport in 1967 it became the perfect location for a replacement.

The Centre spatial guyanais (CSG) has been in operation since 1968, its location selected due to its proximity to the equator allowing for the Earth’s increased rotation to provide a greater source of propulsion for rockets. Furthermore, the sparse population - currently just below 300,000 - and lack of infrastructural development provided ample room to devote entirely to an emerging space sector. The CSG’s development brought large-scale infrastructure projects expanding the city of Kourou, thousands of sector professionals and provided the former prison colony with a monopoly over the European space industry.

However, as both private space tourism and increased national government interests in space exploration expand the industry this is soon to change.

CSG’s monopoly over European space activity has seen it launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope developed jointly by NASA, the ESA and CSA. Its spaceport has provided the ESA’s 23 members with launch sites for the Ariane 5 rocket and Vega satellite carrier programs. Cooperation with the Russian Soyuz-ST program, NASA, Azercosmos and an array of commercial aerospace companies has established the site as a major player in the industry. French Guiana’s culture and economy have thus been dominated by the space industry, 15-17% of the local GDP is directly related to the CSG. This also includes a flourishing tourism industry, further increasing the centre’s economic stimulation.

Newly developed ESA spaceports could thus provide competition, decreasing demand for CSG’s launch pads and redirecting ESA funding (over €30 million alone in local infrastructure and social development), crucial to French Guiana’s economy. ESA diversification has become inevitable with increased interest in space exploration. 2021 saw the establishment of an independent European Union space agency, coinciding with numerous European nations signing the NSA-led Artemis Accords which seeks to return humanity to the moon, eventually expanding space exploration to Mars and beyond. The rise of private agencies such as SpaceX has rejuvenated public interest in space exploration, incentivising governments to reinvest in the industry and threatening a lucrative economic niche French Guinae has carved out.

On 30 September 2022, Spaceport Cornwall was opened, serving as a foundation for Britain’s developing domestic space industry, with a further seven planned spaceport locations in development. Then in January 2023, continental Europe’s first orbital launch site was announced; Sweden’s Esrange Space Center hopes to kickstart a new European space race as Italy, Portugal, German and Spain seek to open their own. This is not to say that the CSG is in danger of becoming irrelevant, as one of the most advanced spaceports in the world with geographical benefits not found anywhere in Europe, it will remain the ESA’s foremost location for decades to come.

However, Paris will undoubtedly be looking for new means of economic growth for Guiana as widespread poverty continues to take hold. As the second poorest overseas department, the people of Guiana have long called for greater infrastructure investments and job creation. Social unrest reached a boiling point in 2017 with the local economy brought to a halt by large-scale demonstrations. Despite pledges from President Macron for improvements, little has improved with 20% of the population remaining unemployed. If the CSG sees a decrease in demand for launch site operations, this number will surely rise.

And yet, there might be a silver lining for Guiana’s economy.

Overdependence on the CSG for economic stimulation has resulted in the territory relying heavily on one sector resulting in the underdevelopment of other sectors. Described as the “Dutch disease” - coined after the decline of the Netherlands’ manufacturing sector after the discovery of large natural gas fields - the dominance of the CSG has left other potential developing sectors in the dark. A decrease in the importance of the CSG would thus require French authorities to devise new economic strategies, placing even more pressure on solutions to resolve rising poverty.

French investments into the space industry have brought infrastructure development, but only to the northern coastline, connecting Kourou to the capital city of Cayenne. In total the department only has 500 miles of paved road. Furthermore, despite low living standards, the cost of living is high, and local manufacturing of food and goods is largely non-existence. Instead, the territory relies on costly importation from mainland France.

Paris views French Guiana primarily as a utility for its own interests, development projects and investments often occur when they are of benefit to the CSG’s operations. The long-term ramifications of this have left much of the population desperately reliant on the goodwill of mainland governmental oversight, thus if Paris wishes to maintain control over its prized possession it must being to look beyond its golden goose space sector. The 2010 government merging referendum was tightly contested, and whilst the

majority voted against greater autonomy the pro-independence MDES party has since risen in popularity.

A new European space race is emerging, one that may provide troubling news for a region so reliant on a lack of competition. Yet a future dethroning of the CSG’s monopoly also brings hope, it provides ample opportunity for the expansion of self-sustaining local industries, for if French Guina’s future remains with France it can no longer be ignored.

Image: ESA/PA Mobile

Loughton’s article signifies the first in a series of article shares between Global Weekly and Europinion. Through sharing articles, we hope to increase and extend the scope of engagement in a whole multitude of important and interesting topics.

Global Weekly is a platform for enthusiasts of politics, international affairs and global news. Our goal is to make geopolitics accessible for all and to shed light on the world's most overlooked stories.

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