French space agency pledges 10-million-euro boost to French Guiana economy

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WASHINGTON — The French space agency CNES has agreed to allocate an additional 10 million euros ($11.7 million) to further the economic and social development of French Guiana, the South American territory home to Europe’s spaceport.

The increase announced July 27 comes a little over a year after the largest protest in French Guiana’s 71-year history. Protesters blocked access to the Guiana Space Center, or CSG, for five weeks last spring to draw attention to French Guiana’s low standards of living compared to mainland France.

CNES, the operator of the spaceport, had previously dedicated 40 million euros from 2014 to 2020 for economic and social programs in French Guiana. The increase to 50 million euros — budgeted within the same six-year “Phèdre II action plan” — provides more funding for educational programs and seeks to increase the space industry’s contribution to the local economy. French Guiana’s unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent, according to European Commission figures. More than 40 percent of the territory’s population is younger than 20.

“I’m delighted that CNES at the Guiana Space Centre is implementing so rapidly the action plan decided by the government,” CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a statement. “It allows us to step up our actions and our involvement with French Guiana’s young people and the country’s education, higher education and research community.”

Last year the spaceport became a bartering chip between French Guiana and France, culminating in protests that halted three launch campaigns for Arianespace, which launches Europe’s Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets from the spaceport. Arianespace used time previously budgeted for spaceport maintenance to complete the delayed launches and return to its normal schedule by June.

This week CNES signed agreements with the University of French Guiana, which describes itself as “the only French-speaking and European university of South America,” and the Guianese Education Authority’s continuous training and professional integration unit. Frédérique Vidal, France’s minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, attended the signing.

With the university, CNES will help develop laboratory infrastructure, facilities, a “digital university,” and establish a Space Chair that will have responsibility for doctoral grants and research contracts.

The Guianese Education Authority and CNES will work together on “scientific and digital projects for primary and secondary schools,” and on arranging scholarships and apprenticeships for local youth.

Spaceport activities generate around 9,000 jobs directly and indirectly in French Guiana, contributing around 40 percent of the territory’s private wages, according to an Arianespace estimate provided last year. In an April 2017 interview, Didier Faivre, director of the Guiana Space Center, said around 70 percent of the spaceport’s staff are local hires.