France blames Azerbaijan for New Caledonia violence: Unpacking their spat

Azerbaijan previously condemned French colonialism in overseas territories, while has France backed Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Masked residents keep an eye on activists at the entrance to Tuband, in the Motor Pool district of Noumea on May 15, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia.
Masked residents of New Caledonia keep an eye on and block access for pro-independence activists at the entrance to Tuband, New Caledonia. [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]

France has accused Azerbaijan of being behind protests and violence that have rocked its Pacific island territory of New Caledonia for the past few days over the French government’s decision to change a voting law.

Azerbaijan, which has traditionally had little presence in the Asia Pacific and is nearly 14,000km (8,700 miles) away from New Caledonia, has denied the allegations of interference.

But what’s behind their diplomatic spat and how does New Caledonia figure in it?

Here is what we know so far.

What’s happening in New Caledonia?

Mass protests erupted in New Caledonia on Tuesday this week after the French parliament passed reforms that allow French people who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years or more to vote in local provincial elections in New Caledonia.

The French government has argued that these reforms uphold democracy in the archipelago. But local people – particularly those from the Indigenous Kanak communities, who make up 40 percent of the islands’ population – fear this will undermine their efforts to win independence from France.

New Caledonia, one of the largest French overseas territories, is located between Australia and Fiji. France occupied the territory in 1853 and purposefully populated it with French citizens who displaced the Indigenous Kanak communities.

Five people have been killed and hundreds injured in the violent protests, which have been accompanied by looting and arson and are the worst violence New Caledonia has experienced in 30 years, experts have said. In response, France declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia on Wednesday and deployed 500 additional military and police personnel to bolster the existing 1,800 police and gendarmes stationed in the territory.

Why is France accusing Azerbaijan of backing the protests?

France accused Azerbaijan of interference after Azerbaijani flags were seen alongside Kanak symbols at the protests. Images of such flags also started making rounds on social media.

Azerbaijan has been outspoken against what it sees as French colonialism. In July 2023, Baku invited pro-independence participants from the French territories of Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia and French Polynesia for a conference titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism”.

This conference resulted in the formation of the Baku Initiative Group whose stated aim is to “support the just struggle of the peoples suffering from the colonial policy of France”. This week, the Group released a statement expressing solidarity with the Indigenous Kanak people against the new French reforms. “We stand in solidarity with our Kanak friends and support their fair struggle,” said the statement.

On Thursday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told the TV channel, France 2, that Azerbaijan, alongside China and Russia, was “interfering” in New Caledonia.

“I regret that some of the Caledonian pro-independence leaders have made a deal with Azerbaijan,” he alleged.

He added: “Even if there are attempts at interference … France is sovereign on its own territory, and so much the better.”

How has Azerbaijan responded to accusations from France?

Baku has denied the French interior minister’s allegations.

“We refute any connection between the leaders of the struggle for freedom in Caledonia and Azerbaijan,”  Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ayhan Hajizadeh said.

Azerbaijan has previously criticised French colonialism in overseas territories.

Tensions between France and Azerbaijan have also been simmering since France expressed support for Armenia in the conflict over the disputed, breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region which is claimed by both countries.

Why are France and Azerbaijan at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh?

France, which has a sizeable Armenian diaspora of roughly 650,000 people, has sided with Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 2020, the French Senate adopted a resolution calling for the region’s independence, prompting Azerbaijan to call for France to be stripped of its mediation role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Tensions between France and Azerbaijan further escalated during Baku’s 2023 military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. In September, France signed defence deals with Armenia and promised to deliver military equipment.

In response, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry released a statement saying, “The stance of France demonstrates that it refuses to learn from the current situation in the colonial regions that it faces today and continues its previous behaviour and policy in this regard”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies