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A slice of tropical rain forest becomes a thing in France’s presidential election

“What’s been happening in French Guiana over the past few days is serious,” said the man most likely to be France’s next president, Emmanuel Macron. He was referring to his country’s largest overseas département, which has been brought to a standstill by a strike led by labor unions.

“My first response is a call for calm, because blocking the airport runways and takeoffs – and sometimes even blocking off the function of the island itself is not the response to the situation,” Macron said.

None of the reporters at the news conference in which these rather standard statements were uttered flinched. But hold on a second. French Guiana isn’t an island. It is a fully integrated – if not geographically contiguous – part of France, akin to a U.S. state, and French elementary schoolchildren are taught where it is. Headlines in France pivoted to the gaffe and away from the strike.

One thing Macron was right about, however, is that the situation in French Guiana is increasingly serious. Air France canceled all its flights to the region on Sunday and Monday as 37 labor unions went on strike to demand better pay, health coverage and increased public safety.

Barricades line the roads in and out of the main city, Cayenne (like the pepper), and the State Department has warned travelers to stay away for the time being. French Guiana consists mostly of dense rain forest, and almost half of its 250,000 people live in the vicinity of Cayenne.

Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s prime minister, announced Monday that a delegation of officials would be dispatched to French Guiana by the end of the week.

The situation has even made its way into a debate between the two main contenders in the French presidential election: Macron, of the center-left En Marche! (Onward!) party, and Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front. Interviewed Monday by the radio station Europe1, Le Pen said French Guiana was being “submerged by illegal immigration” – an assertion she has leveled about France at large throughout the campaign.

She denounced the “negligence of the state” in the territory’s affairs and proposed doubling the number of gendarmes stationed there. Le Pen also endorsed the strikes, though she noted that she didn’t agree with the union leaders’ methods. Should the National Front win any significant chunk of the Guianan vote, it would be a remarkable departure for the steadfastly socialist-leaning region.

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