French “incoherent” position toward Armenia in the Karabakh conflict, interveiw with Maxime Gauin

"File:Embassy of France in Armenia.png" by Omicroñ'R is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

By | Rachel Brooks

December 10, 2020

Image credit: “File:Embassy of France in Armenia.png” by Omicroñ’R is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The French government has been called out for havign allegedly expressed a partial interest in Armenia’s territorial claims to the Karabakh, despite Azerbaijan’s historical and legal recognition as the sovereign of the region. Republic Underground News interviewed Dr. Maxime Gauin, a historian of the Middle East Technical University, who has a career of researching the French, Armenian, and Azerbaijan relationship. Dr. Gauin gave us insights regarding French partiality toward Armenian. Dr. Gauin helped us to have a better understanding of the French position on the Karabakh issue, and how the situation is more nuanced than it appears. 

The interviewer’s questions  and comments appear in bold and the responses appear in plain text throughout.  

 

Why is France partial to Armenia in the Karabakh conflict?

I would rather say: Why has been the position of France so incoherent? I will also discuss the pre-2020 events, but for now, to focus on this year, there was a deterioration of the relationship with Turkey and an exasperation of Emmanuel Macron because of his own incapacity to obtain any clear victory against Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For example, the unwise support for Khalifa Haftar in Libya was so badly conceived that its very existence was eventually denied by Paris. That is why the fake news of the “Syrian mercenaries” was so easily believed in the government. 

That having been said, it is true that the improvised statement of Mr. Macron during his press conference in Lithuania, on 29 September, was unfair and factually wrong, but as far as the content is concerned (no solution by war), it was no different from what the other co-chair of the Minsk group said at the same moment (and before). Later, Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian stated that the Minsk group had failed and that the statu quo was not acceptable. By comparison, Michael Pompeo publicly wished the victory of Armenia (for electoral reasons only).

What worsened the situation was the use of the conflict for reasons of domestic policy. Left-wing and right-wing oppositions are infuriated by their defeat of 2017, and even more by their absence of serious hope for a victory in 2022 (next presidential and legislative elections). As a result, they use everything against the current cabinet.

A part of the right thinks it wise to play the identitarian card (which is actually counter-productive, not to say suicidal, as such a speech only legitimates the transfers of vote for the far rightist National Rally). That is why the non-binding resolutions asking for the “recognition” of the self-proclaimed “republic of Nagorno-Karabakh” were introduced. The debates were made of low-quality Turkey bashing (for example the canard of the “Syrian jihadis”).

It proves that the Turkish actions toward the ordinary parliamentarians were not sufficient. If they were sufficient, a much larger part of the Socialists and of the Conservatives would have voted against the positions of their party, and a much larger part of the majority’s MPs would have voted according to Mr. Le Drian’s recommendation. In winter 2011-2012, the Turkish embassy in Paris had hired the biggest PR company against the Boyer bill (supposed to ban the freedom of expression on the Turkish-Armenian tragedy of 1915-16) and the Turkish associations were exceptionally active. The result was that there were more MPs who signed the application to the Constitutional Council than MPs having voted the Boyer bill. The bill was mercilessly censored by the Council, in the name of freedom of expression. 

What is the history between France and Armenia that makes this the case?

What explains the most the situation today is much history as it was than history as it is imagined now. All the attempts to create a pro-Armenian movement in France failed (in general miserably) from 1863 to 1895. The movement that emerged in 1896 actually was a revengeful act of the left-wing and right-wing oppositions against the centrist cabinet of Jules Méline (it sounds reminiscent of the votes in the Parliament this autumn) and collapsed at the end of 1897, when the Dreyfus became a national (and bitter) dispute. Today, you hear on the left about the involvement of Jean Jaurès (Socialist) and Georges Clemenceau (Liberal). Actually, their participation was short-lived (1896-97). Jaurès became the staunchest Western supporter of the Ottoman Empire in 1908 and until his assassination in 1914, including as far as the Armenian issue was concerned, but who took the time to read his articles? As President of the Ministers’ Council (Prime Minister) from 1906 to 1909, Clemenceau showed no interest in any support for Armenian nationalism, quite the contrary.

During his second and last term as President of the Ministers’ Council, from 1917 to 1920, Clemenceau initially was embittered against the Turks because of the German-Ottoman alliance, but the action of Pierre Loti and others rather quickly changed his mind. In September 1919, he appointed as high commissioner in Beirut General Henri Gouraud and as general secretary Robert de Caix. Nobody, among the persons having the competences for these functions, was more hostile to Armenian nationalism than them—and it was not a secret. The French representative at the League of Nation, René Viviani, was the leading factor in the failure of the candidacy of Armenia to the League in December 1920 (a failure that prevented any military intervention at the benefit of Armenia). France evacuated Çukurova at the end of 1921, at the greatest furor of the Armenian nationalists (the most strident in this regard being those settled in the U.S.), sold weapons to the Turkish national movement by September 1921 and gave others for free by January 1922. I found comments on the Armenian issue in French newspapers, especially in 1922, that no mainstream Turkish nationalist would dare to write today. All that is forgotten today.

A television appearance of Dr. Gauin regarding Armenian Diaspora in France. 

The French representative at the League of Nation, René Viviani, was the leading factor in the failure of the candidacy of Armenia to the League in December 1920 (a failure that prevented any military intervention at the benefit of Armenia). France evacuated Çukurova at the end of 1921, at the greatest furor of the Armenian nationalists (the most strident in this regard being those settled in the U.S.), sold weapons to the Turkish national movement by September 1921 and gave others for free by January 1922. I found comments on the Armenian issue in French newspapers, especially in 1922, that no mainstream Turkish nationalist would dare to write today. All that is forgotten today.

It continued more or less like this for decades. The attempt to re-create a pro-Armenian organization in Paris, in 1933, was almost immediately blocked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was a more successful group in 1946, but made in majority of Communists, in the context of Stalin’s claims concerning Kars and Ardahan. After the departure of the Communists from the cabinet, the anti-Communist repression was exerted mercilessly, including against the majority of the Armenian groups, who supported Stalin at that time (the newspaper of the Ramkavar party was banned in 1953, for example).

Charles de Gaulle had chosen a policy of rapprochement with Turkey, particularly by 1967, and the Armenian leadership of the time did not dare to attempt anything against that. It is true that the situation gradually changed by 1970s, but as late as 2014, France sold a SPOT-7 satellite, officially civilian, to Azerbaijan, with a 1.5 image resolution (when the first military French satellite was launched, in 1996, it had a 1 meter image resolution). As both sides knew in advance, it became a military satellite the same year. France sold € 150 million of military material (officially for the Navy only) to Azerbaijan in 2015 and 190 million in 2019. In 2019, too, the Ministry of Interior ordered the governors to go to the administrative tribunal to obtain the cancelation of the “charters of friendship” signed by some French municipalities with municipalities of the self-proclaimed “republic of Nagorno-Karabakh,” as a local council cannot have its own diplomacy.

What is the history between France and Turkic nations, in this case Azerbaijan, that influences France to “choose” Armenia over Azerbaijan in Karabakh diplomacy?

For the reasons I already mentioned, I do not think it is fair to say that “France choses Armenian over Azerbaijan in Karabakh diplomacy.” Before 2020, it was not true, and this autumn, the problem was not that there was a pro-Armenian line, but that there was no line at all. That having been said, it is clear that the generations who were active during the interwar to favor the reconciliation with Turkey and who died between 1950s and 1970s never were replaced and that the radical renewal of the MPs in 2017 did not always improve the level of knowledge and subtlety of the National Assembly, especially as far as Turkic countries are concerned. 

 

Cultural diplomacy of Azerbaijan has been active, and this is in itself excellent, but we are not anymore under the Presidency of Georges Pompidou (a high school professor of literature who published an anthology of the French poetry) or François Mitterrand (who had a deep knowledge of literature and who led an unparalleled architectural program, for example the complete renovation of the Louvre). The quality of the public debate has decreased and the efficiency of the intellectual arguments has diminished, too, as a result. And one more time, the Azerbaijan bashing was negligible in the wrong choices and statements of this autumn.

 

Will France continue to promote an Armenia settlement in Karabakh despite the fact that Azerbaijan has resumed control in this region?

Mr. Le Drian stated several times that France will not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh, and there is no reason to doubt about it, still less after the recent vote of Armenia in favor of Russia at the UN on the occupied Ukrainian territories. But indeed, it will not be sufficient, after the parliamentarian resolutions where the international law and the most basic facts were absolutely ignored. The future seems to me very open: All will depend on the cleverness of the French cabinet, as well as on the efficiency of the Azerbaijani and Turkish diplomacies.

 

Thank you, Dr. Gauin! You have clarified our questions, addressed our biases, and given us a better understanding of French relations in the Caucasus. 

See more of Dr. Gauin’s academic research at Middle East Technical University.