PARIS: The French government says it has ‘no doubt’ that Azerbaijan is ‘stirring tensions’ in New Caledonia. This is despite the vast geographical and cultural distance which separates the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian state and the French Pacific territory.

Azerbaijan ‘vehemently rejects’ the accusation that it bears responsibility for the riots, which have led to the deaths of five people and rattled the government based in Paris.

This is just the latest in a litany of tensions between Paris and Baku and neither is the first time that France has accused Azerbaijan of being ‘behind an alleged disinformation campaign’.

The riots in New Caledonia (a French territory lying between Australia and Fiji) were set off by moves to agree upon a new voting law. Supporters of independence from France say the law discriminates against the indigenous Kanak population. Paris points to the ‘sudden emergence’ of Azerbaijani flags along-with Kanak symbols in the protests, whilst a group linked to the Baku authorities is openly backing separatists and condemning Paris.

“This isn’t a fantasy. It’s a reality” Darmanin told a television channel, France 2. He made these remarks when asked if Azerbaijan, China and Russia were interfering in New Caledonia. “I regret that some of the Caledonian pro-independence leaders have made a deal with Azerbaijan. It’s indisputable” he alleged. However, he did add that: “Even if there are attempts at interference, France is sovereign on its own territory, and so much the better”.

‘Stand in solidarity’

“We completely reject the baseless accusations” said Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ayhan Hajizadeh. “We refute any connection between the leaders of the struggle for freedom in Caledonia and Azerbaijan.”

In images widely circulating on social media, a reportage broadcast on Wednesday on French channel ‘TF1’ appeared to show some pro-independence supporters wearing T-shirts adorned with the Azerbaijani flag.

Tensions between Paris and Baku have grown in the wake of the 2020 war and lightning offensive in 2023 which Azerbaijan waged, to regain control of its breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region from ethnic Armenian separatists.

France is a ‘traditional ally’ of Christian Armenia, Azerbaijan’s neighbour and historic rival. It is also home to a large Armenian diaspora. Darmanin said that Azerbaijan, led since 2003 by President Ilham Aliyev (who succeeded his father Heydar), was a “dictatorship”.

On Wednesday, the government banned the social networking platform ‘TikTok’ from operating in New Caledonia. Tiktok, whose parent company is Chinese, has been widely utilised by protesters. Critics fear it is being employed to ‘spread disinformation coming from foreign countries’.

Azerbaijan had invited separatists from the French territories of Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia and French Polynesia to Baku, for a conference in July of 2023.

The meeting led to the creation of the “Baku Initiative Group”, whose stated aim is to support “French liberation and anti-colonialist movements”. The group released a statement this week, ‘condemning the French parliament’s proposed change to New Caledonia’s constitution’. The change would enable outsiders who moved to the territory ‘at least 10 years ago’, to vote in its elections.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2024

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