An overseas territory of France situated on the northern Atlantic coast of South America between Suriname and Brazil, French Guiana’s major industries are seafood processing, aerospace engineering and construction. The lack of infrastructure limits its potential as a tourist destination, as many zones of the country are only reachable by river. Its population is diverse, with people of African and European descent as well as East Asians, Amerindians and Brazilians. In the interior the Oyampi and Palik tribes still follow a traditional pre-Colombian way of life. French Guiana became a French colony when it was occupied in the 17th century, and in 1946 it became an official French overseas department. This situation is widely accepted by French Guianese, who in spite of the 1980s rise of a pro-independence party, still support being part of France, as was evident in a 2010 referendum in which approximately 70% of the population voted against increased independence.
French Guiana was originally used by France as a penal colony to imprison convicts, mainly in the famous Devil's Island. Most of them ended up dying of malaria and yellow fever. In nearly one hundred years of operation, Devil's Island received more than 7000 prisoners, until it was eventually closed in 1945. Some prisoners became famous for escaping those prisons such as Henri Charriere, who in his hugely successful memoir Papillon, explains his incarceration in and escape from a penal colony in French Guiana, his memoir was adapted into a 1973 film starring Steve McQueen. René Belbenoit was another famous escapee; he successfully escaped to the United States and talks about his exploits in his book, Dry Guillotine. Another former penal settlement, Kourou, is now home to a European Space Agency rocket launch site. The facility has been a boon to the local economy, accounting for a significant slice of GDP, and has given the territory a strategic value.
One of the country’s most popular authors is French Guiana’s poet and politician, Leon-Gontran Damas, who was one of the founders of la Négritude, a literary and philosophical movement begun in Paris during the early 1930s, which attacked colonialism and racism and celebrated African traditions and black culture. Also known internationally is Henri Salvador, a famous singer, considered one of the preeminent French rock and roll singers since 1956, writing songs that are now classics within French pop music as Syracuse and Une Chanson Douce. In 2005, Salvador was awarded the Brazilian Order of Cultural Merit, for his influence on Brazilian culture, particularly on Bossa Nova, to whose invention he contributed. That same year he took 52nd place in the election of Le Plus Grand Français (The Greatest Frenchman).