'Not a fantasy': Why France accuses Azerbaijan of inciting riots on faraway New Caledonia

The French island territory is more than 13,000km from the Caucasus, and yet Paris alleges its politics are being shaped there

France has imposed a state of emergency and banned TikTok in New Caledonia. AP
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Whenever unrest breaks out in far-flung relics of France’s imperial past, the most common cause is a local grievance or accumulation of grievances with Paris. At first glance, the deadly violence that has erupted on the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia, the worst it has experienced since the 1980s, might seem to have no connection with events more than 13,000km away where eastern Europe meets western Asia.

But France, shocked by riots that have led to five deaths, is pointing an accusing finger at Azerbaijan, claiming it has forged links with the islands’ pro-independence groups and whipped up anti-French sentiment. At the heart of the growing diplomatic row is France’s firm support for Armenia, including military aid, in the latter’s fierce border dispute with Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government rejects any allegations of interference in New Caledonia’s internal affairs but the denials have left France unimpressed.

“This is not a fantasy,’ the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, said this week. “I regret that some of the separatists [in New Caledonia] have made a deal with Azerbaijan."

Always ready to reinforce his very cultivated image of strength – the French Interior Minister is colloquially known as the nation’s “No 1 cop“ – Mr Darmanin asserted: ”France is sovereign on its own territory, and so much the better.”

As trouble on the islands escalated, a state of emergency was declared – strikingly at odds with President Emmanuel Macron’s proud boast after the most recent referendum on independence that France was “more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it”. TikTok was banned in the hope of stopping activists using social media to incite trouble, a curfew was imposed and French officials said troops were being sent to secure ports and the main airport.

There is a long history of uneasy relations between metropolitan France and its most distant territory, located between Australia and Fiji with a population of less than 300,000. Successive referendums have produced votes to remain part of France, but the margin was narrowing until a vote in 2021 produced a seemingly near-unanimous rejection – 96 per cent – of independence.

That result, however, was essentially meaningless. Only 44 per cent of the electorate voted, the poll having been boycotted by supporters of breaking free from French rule after Paris ignored appeals for a postponement of the referendum because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the heart of the growing diplomatic row is France’s firm support for Armenia

The immediate trigger for this week’s disturbances was a move by France to amend electoral policy and allow French residents to vote in New Caledonia’s elections if they have lived there for at least 10 years. Separatists believe this weakens their influence because settlers are more likely to oppose their cause, but the French parliament approved the changes on Wednesday.

In the ensuing clashes, one gendarme has already died along with three civilians, cars have been set on fire and shops looted. The authorities reported an attempted mass prison escape, public buildings have also been targeted in arson attacks and hundreds of people, including scores of police and gendarmes, have been injured, according to Mr Darmanin.

Suspicion fell on Azerbaijan in part because of the activities of the Baku Initiative Group, which supports opposition to French rule in its remaining overseas territories and anti-French feelings in former colonies. The group’s formation may have authentic anti-colonialist origins, but it is also seen as part of an Azerbaijani response to France’s willingness to arm the Armenians.

Catherine Colonna, then the French foreign minister, said while visiting Armenia in October that her government had agreed to allow French defence firms to conclude more equipment contracts with Yerevan. The announcement was denounced by the Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev, who said France was "preparing the ground for new wars".

The chill in Franco-Azerbaijani relations is long-standing. French media have often cast doubt on Mr Aliyev’s claim to power, alleging deep flaws in Azerbaijan’s electoral system. The last Azerbaijani election, moreover, was the first in at least a decade in which French election observers did not take part. The tension was heightened in December, when a French man was arrested in Baku on allegations of spying and Paris responded by ordering the withdrawal of two Azerbaijani embassy officials.

Azerbaijan feels particular indignation towards Mr Macron, who insisted in a 2022 French television interview that France would "never abandon the Armenians". France has a population with Armenian roots estimated at between 400,000 and 750,000, higher than in any other EU country and the largest in the world after Armenia, Russia and the US. Pro-Azerbaijani elements in France believe this leads to disproportionate Armenian influence on French decision-making.

France, in turn, alleges Baku’s hand in the popularising of an anti-Macron song following his declaration of solidarity with Armenia and a more recent video attacking French preparations for the forthcoming Olympic games.

The Baku Initiative Group – grouping pro-independence activists in several French territories including French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe and New Caledonia – was formed to campaign for “the complete elimination of colonialism” after a conference in Baku last summer organised by a think tank chaired by a former Azerbaijani ambassador to the Czech Republic.

New Caledonia, a French territory for 170 years, relies substantially on financial support from France, which accounts for more than 15 per cent of the archipelago’s GDP. But whatever meddling can be attributed to Azerbaijan, France may ultimately have to recognise that the central issue in the present unrest is not a Caucasian statesman of whom it disapproves. Rather, it is a passionate belief on the part of a significant number of New Caledonians, and especially the indigenous Kanaks who make up more than 40 per cent of the population, that self-determination should triumph over economic dependence.

Published: May 17, 2024, 1:40 PM
Updated: May 18, 2024, 4:54 PM