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Amid Tension Over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan Wages A Media War On France

European Council President Charles Michel, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meet in Prague on October 6, 2022. Days later, Macron gave an interview that set off an anti-France campaign in Azerbaijan after he called the 2020 conflict "a terrible war."

They gathered in the conference room to discuss the evils of modern-day French colonialism, with participants from French overseas territories flown in from around the globe: officials from New Caledonia and French Polynesia, activists from Martinique and French Guiana.

And a dozen-plus Azerbaijani TV cameras.

France has a "dictatorial government," said one official from New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific. "Our natural resources are being plundered by France," said a representative from French Guiana, a French region in South America. "France is inculcating an alien culture in Martinique," added another activist from the French island in the Caribbean Sea.

The July 6 conference was titled Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism, but the speakers were only from territories of one country: France. The event took place in Baku, organized by the Azerbaijani state-run Center for Analysis of International Relations think tank. The conference's message was echoed in a speech a day earlier by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who issued a lengthy denunciation of France's "outrageous neocolonialism policy" in those territories, including Corsica and Mayotte, and in its former colony of Algeria.

In recent months, France has become a regular punching bag for Azerbaijani officials from Aliyev on down. Azerbaijani media has exhaustively covered anything bad that happens in -- or purportedly because of -- France. A public television program even enlisted a group of Azerbaijani children to sing a song insulting French President Emmanuel Macron.

The plight of France's far-flung territories may seem an obscure cause for Baku to champion. But the explanation can be found much closer to home, in Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijanis have long been suspicious of France, believing its large Armenian diaspora to exert an outsized influence on Paris's policy toward the Caucasus and especially the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.

Azerbaijan blamed France, along with Russia, for introducing a resolution in the United Nations Security Council during the 2020 war that Baku said favored Armenia. (The resolution was not adopted.) France also tried but failed to get the Security Council to take up a resolution to condemn Azerbaijan for the de facto blockade it launched in December 2022.

But until recently, occasional disagreements were for the most part papered over.

That changed in October 2022, and the trigger appears to have been an interview Macron gave in which he called the 2020 conflict "a terrible war." To Azerbaijanis, the war was in fact a victory to be proud of: Their country finally regained control of most of the territory it lost in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s, as a result of which more than 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were ethnically cleansed.

The anti-France campaign began soon thereafter. In a speech two days after Macron's interview, Aliyev complained that the French president has been notably more pro-Armenian than his predecessors: "We always perceived the activities of previous French presidents, despite, of course, a certain factor of the Armenian diaspora in France, as balanced. However, the current French leadership has effectively crossed out all this."

Then came the children's song, in which a TV host sang lyrics such as "He is pro-Armenian. What can you say to this person? He gives us false promises…. Who is that person?" In response, a chorus of children chanted: Em-Man-U-El!"

Azerbaijan's government-run think tanks pivoted to focus on France. "France is an absolute evil for Azerbaijan," said Farhad Mammadov, head of the South Caucasus Research Center, in an April interview.

The Azerbaijani pro-government media has taken up the cause, as well, with a noticeable uptick in negative news about France, both on the foreign and domestic fronts.

That coverage has not been accidental: Pro-government media have repeatedly gotten instructions from the authorities on how to cover France, according to screenshots of messages seen by RFE/RL.

The missives are a common practice in Azerbaijan. Media outlets sometimes get multiples messages a day, delivered by WhatsApp, which direct coverage and issue "recommendations" on how to cover certain stories.

In December 2021, the news website Eurasianet obtained a cache of the messages, and although it is unclear from exactly where the directives originate, the journalists who receive them believe they come from the office of the president.

According to one message, from May 12, media were requested to cover how "colonialist France is organizing a 'crusade' against Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus." The message asked that "a broad campaign be launched against France's anti-peace activities in the region, to conduct vox pops among the population, strongly condemn France/Macron, and arrange for foreign experts to take part in the process."

According to another message, from June 2, media were given instructions on how to cover a meeting in Moldova the day before between Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Charles Michel, the president of the EU Council, which sets the bloc's political and strategic priorities. "It is requested not to pay attention to the statement of the French president yesterday and not to broadcast it," the message read.

The heavy rhetorical assaults from Baku come even as ties between Azerbaijan and France, on the official level, are proceeding more or less as normal.

On July 10, French company TotalEnergies announced a significant new development in natural-gas extraction in Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea waters. Azerbaijani analysts said that under normal circumstances, the news would have been trumpeted as a triumph, but the demands of the anti-France campaign required it to be covered only as straight news.

"At a time when we have started propaganda against French colonialism, it is inappropriate to announce the news that the French are producing gas for us," political analyst Shahin Jafarli wrote on his Facebook page, adding a smiley emoji. "The reality is that today there is no serious problem in Azerbaijan-France relations…. Do not believe in these temporary campaigns."

In recent years, there has been a shift in French political rhetoric in favor of Armenia, said Regis Gente, a French journalist and analyst who covers the Caucasus. The shift has been driven by the increasing prominence of the far right in French politics, which is animated by anti-Muslim sentiment and has taken on the cause of Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan, Gente told RFE/RL.

"The [French] political agenda is being set by the far right," Gente said. "And especially if you are a politician from the right, you feel obliged to hunt for the electorate of the far right."

Rhetoric aside, France is still trying to maintain a balance in the Caucasus, Gente said. While France has announced it plans to establish a new military attache office in Yerevan -- sparking angry recriminations from Baku that the move is a precursor for providing French weapons to Armenia -- it quietly offered to set up a similar office in Baku, he said. The French Embassy in Baku did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment.

France's National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, has passed resolutions calling for sanctions on Azerbaijan because of its actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. But those statements are nonbinding, and France's foreign minister recently said that Nagorno-Karabakh is an "enclave inside Azerbaijan," echoing Baku's position on that critical question.

"Apart from these nonbinding resolutions in the National Assembly, what did France actually do?" asked Altay Goyushov, the head of the independent think tank, the Baku Research Institute. "They didn't impose any kind of sanctions on us….They didn't provide any weapons to Armenia. It's true that they do have a very powerful Armenian diaspora in culture, in academia, in politics, everywhere, and the most they managed was these two or three nonbinding resolutions. France is not interested in escalating relations with Azerbaijan," he told RFE/RL.

The real target of the anti-French campaign is Azerbaijan's domestic audience, which is primed to think poorly of France and which the government hopes to distract by rally-around-the-flag messaging, Goyushov said.

"This is a very elaborate game by Aliyev and, so far, it's working," he said, noting that he has seen an increase in anti-French sentiment on social media and among ordinary Azerbaijanis. At the same time, Aliyev "knows that this kind of talk doesn't bring any real problems with France," Goyushov added.

Pointing out France's own problems with its ethnic minorities -- including during recent unrest triggered by the police killing of a teenager of Algerian origin -- has allowed Baku to push back against external criticism of its own actions vis-a-vis the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan has increasingly closed off access to Nagorno-Karabakh, now leaving its tens of thousands of ethnic Armenian residents in a state of total blockade. The United States, Russia, the European Union, and other powers have called on Azerbaijan to ensure free movement in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh. While France's statements on the issue have been consistent with the international consensus, Azerbaijani pushback has been hardest against Paris.

"Why does France think it can teach us how to deal with minority issues?" asked Farid Shafiyev, the head of the Center for Analysis of International Relations and the chair of the recent panel on decolonization. "On our territory this so-called minority is armed, commits terrorist acts, says it wants to break away, and in the future join another state, and for some reason we are supposed to give them status, according to Macron, according to French politicians. And these same people, not just inside France, but they are not ready to even give independence to New Caledonia and other territories," he said in one interview with local media.

"If France wants to interfere in our internal affairs, if they want to instruct us how to organize our relations with minorities, then we can raise the same questions."