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How France became the target of Azerbaijan's smear campaign

What do the absence of French observers at Azerbaijan's February 7 presidential election, a group denouncing "French colonialism" and an online campaign targeting the 2024 Paris Olympics have in common? They are three facets of a new offensive strategy adopted by Azerbaijani diplomacy towards France. FRANCE 24 investigated this shift with the Forbidden Stories consortium and other media outlets as part of "The Baku Connection" project.


Relations between Azerbaijan and France have deteriorated. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, which handed President Ilham Aliyev an unsurprising and unopposed victory with 92% of the vote and a fifth term in office, provided the backdrop for the latest illustration of deteriorating Franco-Azerbaijani relations.


For the first time in at least a decade, there were no French elected representatives or independent observers on the team of international observers monitoring the vote. As Aliyev tightens his grip on power and the country’s electoral system, there were fewer West European nationals on the international monitoring team. But a few German, Austrian, Spanish and Italian nationals did make it on the observer mission.


Escalating tensions

The absence of a French presence on the observer team is the result of a disaccord between France and Azerbaijan. French parliamentarians who have visited the former Soviet republic in the past as election observers no longer want to hear about it. "When you have a president who systematically gets elected with over 80% of the vote, I wouldn’t call that free and fair elections," said Claude Kern, senator from France’s eastern Bas-Rhin region, who was part of the French delegation for the 2018 presidential election.


Even the Association of Friends of Azerbaijan at the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, has experienced an exodus of almost all its members in recent months.

Azerbaijan also appears to have closed the door on the few independent French nationals wishing to observe the presidential election on the ground. This was the case with journalist Jean-Michel Brun, who contributes to the websites, “Musulmans de France” and “Gazette du Caucase”, two portals with a very pro-Azerbaijani slant.


His candidacy was rejected by Azerbaijani authorities, without explanation, a few days before the election. "Relations with Azerbaijan are so rotten at the moment that they may have decided not to invite any French people," said Brun. When contacted by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, Azerbaijani authorities did not respond to the reasons for the absence of French observers.


The election observer issue is part of a wider context of escalating bilateral tensions. The month of December was marked by a particularly sharp deterioration: a Frenchman was arrested in Baku and accused of espionage, Azerbaijan then expelled two French diplomats, Paris promptly responded, declaring two Azerbaijani embassy officials persona non grata. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was accompanied by acerbic statements from both sides.


For French nationals in Azerbaijan, the message was clear. "French authorities made us understand that we had to be careful because we could be expelled overnight," confided a Frenchman living in Azerbaijan who did not wish to be named. Despite the strained ties between Paris and Baku, the Frenchman said he was quite satisfied with living conditions in Azerbaijan. When contacted, the French embassy in Azerbaijan did not respond to FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.


The rapid and overt diplomatic deterioration between Azerbaijan and France is a new low, according to experts. “It’s the first time we see this kind of development against a European country, a Western country,” said Altay Goyushov, a political scientist at the Baku Research Institute, an independent Azerbaijani research center. “This is a completely new development, when a French citizen is arrested on spying charges, it’s never happened before,” he noted, adding that Azerbaijani authorities have mostly used “these kind of tactics” against the domestic opposition and the media in the past.


A song against Macron

Historically, it hasn't always been this way. France, like other European countries, has long been the target of what has come to be called "caviar diplomacy". It’s a term employed by experts and journalists for over a decade to describe oil-rich Azerbaijan’s particularly lavish and distinctive lobbying strategy, which includes costly official trips for foreign politicians and influencers, and providing expensive gifts and funds for projects such as the renovation of churches. The payback, documented in several news reports, includes soft-power wins for Azerbaijan by securing its influence in Europe’s political and media worlds.


In the past, France held a special place for Baku’s political elites. France is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, which also includes the US and Russia. Since the early 2000s, Paris has attempted to play a key role, within the Minsk Group, to try to find a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


France was therefore considered an important European power in Baku, one worth wooing and trying to keep on side. For Azerbaijan, this is particularly important since Baku has long believed the Armenian community in France to be very influential in French power circles, a position echoed by several pro-Azerbaijan figures interviewed by FRANCE 24 and the Forbidden Stories consortium.

The September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming a third of the disputed enclave, marked the beginning of the bilateral break. Two years later, in an interview with France 2 TV station, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France "will never abandon the Armenians".


The French president’s avowal was viewed as a diplomatic slap by Baku. "It was very frustrating for Ilham Aliyev, who wants to be able to impose his demands on a weak Armenia, which is not the case if Yerevan thinks it can count on French support," noted Goyushov.


This French support began to take shape after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s October 2023 visit to Armenia when she announced that "France has given its agreement to the conclusion of future contracts with Armenia which will enable the delivery of military equipment to Armenia so that it can ensure its defence". The announcement sparked disapproval from Aliyev, who accused France of "preparing the ground [for] new wars".


Azerbaijan then began a diplomatic shift that increasingly resembled a 180-degree turn.


The tone was first set by a song performed on public television and soberly titled, "Emmanuel". Broadcast a week after Macron's France 2 interview, the lyrics featured criticisms levelled at the French president – accusing him of "betraying his promises", for instance – while children punctuated each verse, singing "Emmanuel" in chorus.


It was a very public display of Azerbaijan’s new disaffection for France. Official accusations – such as the one frequently adopted by  Elchin Amirbayov, the Azerbaijani president's special representative for the normalisation of relations with Armenia, accusing France of “undermining the peace efforts” with Armenia – represent just the tip of the iceberg of Baku’s new diplomatic turn. The submerged component includes a number of initiatives aimed at denigrating France.


Outrage over ‘French colonialism’ by the Azerbaijani state

In November 2023, a video highly critical of the organisation of the 2024 Paris Olympics emerged, sparking a media stir in France. According to VIGINUM, the French government agency for the defence against foreign digital interference, it was an influence campaign linked to "an actor close to Azerbaijan".


In its technical report, seen by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, VIGINUM concluded that the operation, amplified by fake sites and accounts on social media, is "likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation".


On another, parallel track, Azerbaijan is promoting the claims of a new structure called the "Baku Initiative Group". Its members, independence fighters from French overseas territories and regions such as French Guiana, Martinique, New Caledonia and Guadeloupe, have been denouncing France's "colonisation” and “neocolonialism”, and have been calling for “decolonisation”.


"At the last Non-Aligned Movement conference [chaired by Azerbaijan] in July 2023 in Baku, we wanted to take stock of the situation in the territories still under French domination, and decided to form the Baku Initiative Group," explained Jean-Jacob Bicep, president of the People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe, a far-left political party in the French overseas region. "The aim is to make the world aware of France's colonial policy," added another representative who asked to remain anonymous.


These pro-independence activists have already been able to make their case against what they call "French colonialism" before the UN on two occasions: first at a conference in September at the UN’s New York headquarters, then at its Geneva office in December. Both events were organised by the Baku Initiative Group.


What does this have to do with Azerbaijan? It's not just a coincidence that Azerbaijan held the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Group at just the right time. The executive director of these “anti-French colonialism” gatherings is Azerbaijani Abbas Abbassov, who has long worked for Azerbaijan's State Oil Fund. 


In addition, a July 2023 roundtable in Baku titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism” was organised by the AIR Center, one of Azerbaijan’s leading think tanks, whose chairman, Farid Shafiyev, is Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Czech Republic.


The Baku roundtable ended with an agreement on the establishment of “the Baku Initiative Group against French colonialism”, according to an AIR Center statement. When contacted, the think tank did not respond to questions from FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.


Denouncing the ‘Macron Dictatorship’

The group of French nationals who have attended the Baku Initiative Group meetings includes well-known figures in the pro-Azerbaijani camp, such as journalist Yannick Urrien. "It was Hikmet Hajiyev who asked me to come to a conference of the group in Baku in October 2023," explained Urrien.


Hikmet Hajiyev is a well-known figure in Azerbaijan power circles: he is the foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan’s president and a close associate of President Aliyev. "He is the mastermind behind the smear campaigns against other countries, including France," explained Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) and a former advisor to Azerbaijan for around six years.


Aliyev himself used a speech at a decolonisation conference in Baku in November to deliver a scathing broadside against France. In his address, the Azerbaijani president referred to France more than 20 times, accusing Paris of “inflicting conflict” in the Caucasus and committing "most of the bloody crimes in the colonial history of humanity".


Some of the French participants in Baku’s decolonisation conferences deny being instrumentalised or prefer to ignore the issue. "It's none of my business. We seize every opportunity to achieve our goal, and all France has to do is settle its own problems with Azerbaijan," said Bicep, the leader of the far-left People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe.


Another participant, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the creation of the Baku Initiative Group came at the best possible time for Azerbaijan, which "doesn't really have any chemistry with France at the moment". It’s probably a way of asking the French government "to put its own house in order before criticising what others are doing [in Nagorno-Karabakh]", he added.


Azerbaijan has also proved to be creative in increasing the resonance of these pro-independence demands on social media. On Twitter, they are relayed by anonymous Azerbaijanis and influential personalities, such as AIR Center director Farid Shafiyev.


Since October, the Azerbaijani parliament has even hosted a support group for the people of Corsica, the French Mediterranean island which has had a tumultuous relationship with mainland France since it became French in the 18th century. A communiqué published in early February by the people of Corsica support group set up by Azerbaijan’s parliament denounced "the Macron Dictatorship". ().


In December, Azerbaijan was accused of sending journalists "known for their proximity to Azerbaijani intelligence services" to cover French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s trip to New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the Pacific. Their mission was to write articles “with an anti-France angle", said radio station Europe 1, which broke the story.


A leaf from the Russian playbook

The creation of the Baku Initiative Group and the media hype surrounding the issue of anti-colonialism are "a monumental mistake", according to Dupuy. The former advisor to Azerbaijan asserted that this strategy has "no chance" of moving France one iota on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, while scuttling relations between the two countries. It’s an opinion he says he shares with his contacts in Azerbaijan.


But it's not surprising that Baku is resorting to this kind of tactic, explained Goyushov of the Baku Research Institute. With its internet disinformation operations and anti-West rhetoric harking back to the colonial era, Azerbaijan is taking a leaf out of the Kremlin playbook for winning friends and gaining influence in Africa.


“You have to take into account one thing: Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union,” said Goyushov. Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president for a decade before his son took over the office, was a former KGB official – like Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Of course they are still almost the same,” added the political scientist. “They are copying each other in many ways. Their rhetoric against the West uses the same methods against their opponents, employs the same tactics on social media.”


But Goyushov doesn't expect the Azerbaijani offensive to succeed. Firstly, because Azerbaijan does not have the same resources as Russia to deploy large-scale operations, such as Russia's Doppelgänger disinformation campaign, which has been spreading false information in several European countries since 2022.


Secondly, Azerbaijan "is much more economically dependent on Western countries than Russia", noted Goyushov. Aliyev, he believes, does not have the luxury of getting permanently upset with a power like France.


"It's quite similar to what happened in 2013 with Germany," explained Goyushov. Back then, Germany criticised the infringements of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, a country with a Muslim majority. In the lead-up to a presidential election in Azerbaijan, "there were numerous attacks on Germany for about two years", noted Goyushov.


But then the anti-German attacks abruptly stopped. The reason, according to Goyushov, is that these smear campaigns serve mainly internal political purposes. "In an authoritarian regime, you sometimes need to find a common enemy that allows the country to unite around the leader," he explained. Perhaps COP 29, the 2024 climate conference to be held in Azerbaijan in November, will be an opportunity for the authorities to redress the diplomatic balance with the West, and France in particular.


Eloïse Layan from Forbidden Stories contributed to this report.


This article has been translated from the original in French.

 
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