My French placement in Suriname

Elizabeth Balls

One might have thought going to Suriname, a Dutch speaking country, was a questionable idea for a university student of French. I would have agreed with you. However, let me try to illustrate how being at the heart of operations in a country where France’s influence is only at the start of its fruition, is optimum for a French Language and Cultures student. At the same time, hopefully you can get an idea of this fascinating, lesser-known country. 

The most forested country in the world

Labelled as the most forested country in the world, Suriname shares a border with Guyana (to the West) and French Guiana (to the East), forming a main part of the Guiana Shield. Its capital, Paramaribo, is becoming a geopolitical hotspot for its rich natural resources, hugely diverse demographic, and recent emerging markets. When I say a hugely diverse demographic, I mean it. Suriname has experienced the chronological arrival from the Indigenous to the Europeans, Africans, Chinese, Hindus, Javanese, Brazilians, and more recently others (Dutch, Cuban, Haitian, French, American etc). Therefore, you will not be surprised to see a synagogue and mosque standing directly adjacent to each other in harmony. Nor would you be surprised to see six different weekly markets, each displaying unique crafts, food, and traditional dance and music from a particular ethnic group. Experiencing Suriname’s Maroon Day, their contrasting Diwali festival, and Suriname’s Independence Day on 25 November showcased this diversity alone. I went from Afro-dancing, to eating traditional Indian snacks, to watching a military parade comprised of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana Armed Forces, amongst other groups.

Natural resources

Then comes the natural resources. There’s a lot. Do not forget we are talking about Amazon territory. However, with its multitude, comes its dangers and threats. Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, whilst having individual identities, share similar problems. Generally, Guyana looks to the Caribbean, Suriname looks to the Netherlands, and French Guiana looks to France, yet the importance is on looking to each other to solve their shared problems, such as in illegal goldmining, managing dramatic oil developments, water contamination and shortage, rights of indigenous groups, deforestation, trade, and much more. Therefore, France’s influence in and with Suriname is bigger than you would think.

A celebration of French culture

As a result, as well as sharing knowledge and expertise in those areas, France’s soft influence becomes crucial, and they implement this admirably. It is as effective as expressing stereotypical French culture and tradition in Suriname. Thus, during my placement, we held the official “Journées françaises à Paramaribo” from the 16th– 23rd November – a true celebration of French culture. A wine and cheese evening, diplomacy conference, French cinema night, francophone conversation café, culinary experience with French chefs, cycling event in promotion of the upcoming Paris Olympics, pétanque competition, and a cocktail evening with French entrepreneurs, expats, and French armed forces on La Combattante ship was all brought to the heart of Suriname. The beauty of being in a country where France continues to develop its position, influence, and identity, is that you stand as a teacher, advocator, and promoter of this language and culture. In doing so, I better immersed myself and learned more about France and its culture and language. You are a representative for France, particularly for all of those who are yet to know more about its culture and traditions.

Suriname and France

Suriname and France’s ties are even deeper, given Suriname’s shared border to what is technically ‘France’. Thus, that also brings its disputes and need for cooperation. They are so close, that it was possible for me to ‘go to France’ for the day and visit one of the former colony prison camps where they used to take in convicts from France to do forced labour. This was truly eye-opening and tragic to learn about, and the traces of history are still very present. You can watch the film Papillon to have a rough example of what happened.

Alliance Française

Finally, we have the emerging Alliance Française Suriname. As is well-known, the Alliance Française has a formidable network and reputation of sharing and teaching French language and culture worldwide. Suriname’s branch is at the very start of its journey. For me, this was opportune, as I could gain insight of how an Alliance functions, be at the forefront of promoting the language, and creating innovative ways to teach French in Suriname. Teaching members of the Suriname Armed Forces to speak French through the Alliance Française programme will aid conversation and hopefully cooperation with the French Armed Forces in French Guiana, for example.

Oil extraction

In conclusion, according to a source, every South American country has a French Embassy, which provides France with a vast, influential, connected network across the continent. The influence of France in South America and Suriname therefore will undoubtedly continue to grow, particularly with the influx of the French TotalEnergies oil company and their extraction of oil in offshore blocks of Suriname. They have invested US$9 billion into the offshore block 58 in Suriname, in which they aim to extract 700 million barrels of oil. Developments are commencing as we speak, and oil production is projected for 2028. So, the next 5 years or so will be very exciting for some, and potentially a dramatically changing time for Suriname. France will have a big role to play in this.

Truly fascinating

That’s enough words from me. But, perhaps you can tell that what’s above is only snippet of the insight I gained by taking a somewhat odd decision to do a French placement in a Dutch-speaking country called Suriname. Truly fascinating. 

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Elizabeth Balls

Lizzy is studying French and Spanish, and plans to pursue a career in international diplomacy, a UN organization or an NGO

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