IN-DEPTH: Macron’s Troubles: Are Beijing, Moscow Fanning Violent Unrest in the Pacific?

According to France, unrest in New Caledonia—which recently exploded into violence and, so far, 6 deaths—is being fomented by China, Russia, and Azerbaijan.Azerbaijan—at the boundary of Eastern Europe and West Asia—has a long-running dispute with France, but has no history or strategic interest in the Pacific.Yet it has been accused of pouring fuel onto the fire of independence movements in French territories across the region.Is it just anti-French animus, or is someone else adding sparks to the fire?The idea that the recent uprising in New Caledonia—which has seen cars and buildings burned, roadblocks across the capital Nouméa, and six deaths to date—is being fuelled by anything other than the ongoing struggle of native Kanak people for independence from France may seem to belong in the shadowy corner of the internet reserved for conspiracy theories.But senior French government figures are advancing the idea that strategists in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, are masterminding events in the Pacific from thousands of kilometres away and that they’re not the only ones doing so.France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has publicly accused the Eurasian nation of interfering in New Caledonia’s internal matters.Related Stories“This isn’t a fantasy. It’s a reality,” he told the France 2 TV channel.“I regret that some of the separatists have made a deal with Azerbaijan,” he said.However, “even if there are attempts at interference … France is sovereign on its own territory, and so much the better.”An unnamed French intelligence official told the website Politico that security forces had “detected activities from Russia and Azerbaijan in New Caledonia for weeks, even a few months. They’re pushing the narrative of France being a colonialist state.”Social media accounts which openly support Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia have been observed spreading misleading content about French police actions in New Caledonia, aimed at inciting unrest and violence.French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (right) speaks to the press in Paris on Oct. 9, 2023. (Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images)Similar accounts have also been accused of running a disinformation campaign about France’s capability to host the Olympic Games, due to start on July 26 in Paris.In April, France recalled its ambassador to Azerbaijan—one of the most serious of diplomatic rebukes—with President Macron saying he hoped Baku would clarify its intentions.But instead, in the same month, Azerbaijan signed a memorandum of cooperation with separatist elements in New Caledonia.Last summer, it invited representatives from independence movements in Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia to a conference to discuss how best to pool their resources.Links to Pro-Independence Movements Across French TerritoriesFrance faces increasingly strident calls for independence from many of its colonies, including New Caledonia, French Polynesia, French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Corsica which have banded together to press for an end to colonialism.Uniting the disparate rebel groups is an organisation about which relatively little is known, called the Baku Initiative Group. Baku is Azerbaijan’s capital.Established in July 2023, the Group—comprised mainly of participants from French territories seeking independence—aims to support anti-colonial movements against France.A bystander in front of burnt vehicles in a roadblock at the entrance to Ducos, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. The Pacific territory of 270,000 people has been in turmoil since May 13, when violence erupted over French plans to impose new voting rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)There is no detail on who funds the group, its lavish conferences, or the salary of its executive director, Abbas Abbasov.Mr. Abbasov was previously a senior oil company executive and a former First Deputy Prime Minister of his country.However, according to Philippe Gomes, former president of the government of New Caledonia, Azerbaijan is actively funding the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and “created the Baku Group through which it funds separatists in all overseas French regions.“Recent trips to Paris by independence activists were funded by Baku. It is clear and obvious that Azerbaijan is contributing in support the request for independence, which can be called foreign interference,” Mr. Gomes alleged.Azerbaijani Flags at Nouméa ProtestsAnd it’s true that, while many people would struggle to identify what one looked like, Azerbaijani flags have been on display at Kanak independence protests.The Group has expressed solidarity with the Kanak people and condemned the electoral reforms which led to the recent riots.While its website appears reasonable and measured—saying only that it exists to “support the fight against colonialism and neocoloni

IN-DEPTH: Macron’s Troubles: Are Beijing, Moscow Fanning Violent Unrest in the Pacific?

.

According to France, unrest in New Caledonia—which recently exploded into violence and, so far, 6 deaths—is being fomented by China, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan—at the boundary of Eastern Europe and West Asia—has a long-running dispute with France, but has no history or strategic interest in the Pacific.

Yet it has been accused of pouring fuel onto the fire of independence movements in French territories across the region.

Is it just anti-French animus, or is someone else adding sparks to the fire?

The idea that the recent uprising in New Caledonia—which has seen cars and buildings burned, roadblocks across the capital Nouméa, and six deaths to date—is being fuelled by anything other than the ongoing struggle of native Kanak people for independence from France may seem to belong in the shadowy corner of the internet reserved for conspiracy theories.

But senior French government figures are advancing the idea that strategists in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, are masterminding events in the Pacific from thousands of kilometres away and that they’re not the only ones doing so.

France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has publicly accused the Eurasian nation of interfering in New Caledonia’s internal matters.

“This isn’t a fantasy. It’s a reality,” he told the France 2 TV channel.

“I regret that some of the separatists have made a deal with Azerbaijan,” he said.

However, “even if there are attempts at interference … France is sovereign on its own territory, and so much the better.”

An unnamed French intelligence official told the website Politico that security forces had “detected activities from Russia and Azerbaijan in New Caledonia for weeks, even a few months. They’re pushing the narrative of France being a colonialist state.”

Social media accounts which openly support Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia have been observed spreading misleading content about French police actions in New Caledonia, aimed at inciting unrest and violence.

.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (right) speaks to the press in Paris on Oct. 9, 2023. (Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images)
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (right) speaks to the press in Paris on Oct. 9, 2023. (Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images)

.

Similar accounts have also been accused of running a disinformation campaign about France’s capability to host the Olympic Games, due to start on July 26 in Paris.

In April, France recalled its ambassador to Azerbaijan—one of the most serious of diplomatic rebukes—with President Macron saying he hoped Baku would clarify its intentions.

But instead, in the same month, Azerbaijan signed a memorandum of cooperation with separatist elements in New Caledonia.

Last summer, it invited representatives from independence movements in Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia to a conference to discuss how best to pool their resources.

.

Links to Pro-Independence Movements Across French Territories

France faces increasingly strident calls for independence from many of its colonies, including New Caledonia, French Polynesia, French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Corsica which have banded together to press for an end to colonialism.

Uniting the disparate rebel groups is an organisation about which relatively little is known, called the Baku Initiative Group. Baku is Azerbaijan’s capital.

Established in July 2023, the Group—comprised mainly of participants from French territories seeking independence—aims to support anti-colonial movements against France.

A bystander in front of burnt vehicles in a roadblock at the entrance to Ducos, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. The Pacific territory of 270,000 people has been in turmoil since May 13, when violence erupted over French plans to impose new voting rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)
A bystander in front of burnt vehicles in a roadblock at the entrance to Ducos, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. The Pacific territory of 270,000 people has been in turmoil since May 13, when violence erupted over French plans to impose new voting rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)

.

There is no detail on who funds the group, its lavish conferences, or the salary of its executive director, Abbas Abbasov.

Mr. Abbasov was previously a senior oil company executive and a former First Deputy Prime Minister of his country.

However, according to Philippe Gomes, former president of the government of New Caledonia, Azerbaijan is actively funding the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and “created the Baku Group through which it funds separatists in all overseas French regions.

“Recent trips to Paris by independence activists were funded by Baku. It is clear and obvious that Azerbaijan is contributing in support the request for independence, which can be called foreign interference,” Mr. Gomes alleged.

.

Azerbaijani Flags at Nouméa Protests

And it’s true that, while many people would struggle to identify what one looked like, Azerbaijani flags have been on display at Kanak independence protests.

The Group has expressed solidarity with the Kanak people and condemned the electoral reforms which led to the recent riots.

While its website appears reasonable and measured—saying only that it exists to “support the fight against colonialism and neocolonialism”—it maintains an active Facebook page where posts include photos of pro-independence protesters in Corsica holding a New Caledonian flag and the text “France Out.”

An analysis by French state radio found that 90 percent of the Baku Group’s output on social networks concerned French overseas territories.

.

Bottles and debris are seen scattered on the gound in the Normandy industrial zone in Noumea, New Caledonia, on May 20, 2024. (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)
Bottles and debris are seen scattered on the gound in the Normandy industrial zone in Noumea, New Caledonia, on May 20, 2024. (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)

.
The day after unrest began in Nouméa the Group posted on X welcoming the uprising and the presence of the Azeri national flag in the procession.

Mr. Abbasov told French media that the Group had “not prepared anything. Our colleagues who work with NGOs have been told: ‘We have raised your flag in our demonstrations on our sole initiative.’”

However, images from French TV show protesters wearing t-shirts displaying anti-colonial slogans and the Baku Group’s logo.

The page also reposted an article by Francis Carole, a member of the Martinique Assembly and the Baku Initiative, refuting any suggestion of foreign influence on the movement for New Caledonian liberation.

“The foreigner’s hand and ‘interference’ are always an easy parade to mask one’s own mediocrity, justify arbitrary decisions and try to discredit those who dare challenge the colonial order,” Mr. Carole wrote.

“The fact is that the Kanak people did not wait for anyone to, from 1853, the year of the occupation of their territory by the French, rise up multiple times, without political subordination to anyone, neither to foreign powers nor to unlikely philanthropists descended from heaven.

“[It is] the responsibility of a liberation movement to seek the international support it needs, as long as it remains the absolute master of its own struggle.”

The Epoch Times has contacted Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who could not provide a response before publication deadline.

.

This photograph shows a Kanak flag waving next to a burning vehicle at an independantist roadblock at La Tamoa, in the commune of Paita, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 19, 2024. French forces smashed through about 60 road blocks to clear the way from conflict-stricken New Caledonia's capital to the airport. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)
This photograph shows a Kanak flag waving next to a burning vehicle at an independantist roadblock at La Tamoa, in the commune of Paita, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 19, 2024. French forces smashed through about 60 road blocks to clear the way from conflict-stricken New Caledonia's capital to the airport. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)

.

Azerbaijan Denies Involvement

For its part, Azerbaijan denies any involvement in New Caledonia’s troubles.

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

But that’s refuted by no less an authority than Roch Wamytan, the FLNKS president of New Caledonia’s Congress, who told Radio France: “Azerbaijan, in its speech in defence of international law, is a lever for building an international network for us. We are forced to turn to external countries to call for help.”

Analysts suggest that Azerbaijan’s motive is simply to highlight what it sees as French hypocrisy: how can France accuse Azerbaijan of occupying the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh (linked to Armenia), while it occupies New Caledonia?

.

People celebrate on the streets after Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev said the country's forces had taken Shusha, which Armenians call Shushi, during the fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Nov. 8, 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)
People celebrate on the streets after Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev said the country's forces had taken Shusha, which Armenians call Shushi, during the fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Nov. 8, 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)

.

But while Beijing and Moscow are known to have extraterritorial ambitions and to run active destabilisation efforts against the West, the authoritarian Muslim nation is not similarly known.

It would not gain any strategic advantage by gaining a foothold in the Pacific. Baku is 13,792 km (8,570 mi) from Nouméa and has no historical or settlement links with the territory.

.

What Other Influences Could Be at Work?

New Caledonia is of considerable economic and strategic importance.

It is the world’s third-largest producer of nickel, a mineral that is vital to everything from the production of stainless steel, to rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, and other end uses.

About a quarter of the island’s 275,000 population is employed in the nickel industry.

Its position in the Pacific, 1,210 kilometres (750 miles) east of Australia, and 1,402 kilometres (871 miles) north of New Zealand, also makes it strategically valuable. It is actually closer to both nations compared to Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji.

.

General view of Prony Resources operations which produces nickel and cobalt, east of the capital of Noumea, in New Caledonia, in 2020. (Radikal Pictures 2020/Handout via Reuters)
General view of Prony Resources operations which produces nickel and cobalt, east of the capital of Noumea, in New Caledonia, in 2020. (Radikal Pictures 2020/Handout via Reuters)

.

There would be obvious advantages to both Beijing and Moscow in having the country run by a local authority which would likely have to rely on a foreign power to keep it afloat.

Though the territory is supposed to be self-sustaining, Paris regularly steps in with large loans to prop up its economy, most recently a €320 million bail-out of New Caledonia’s nickel industry.

France has a military base on the island, which last December hosted the South Pacific defence ministers’ conference, attended by Sébastien Lecornu, France’s minister for armed forces.

If France were to withdraw, a new Kanak government may be convinced to invite another country to step in.

.

A map showing the position of New Caledonia in the Pacific. (Screenshot, Google Maps / Rex Widerstrom)
A map showing the position of New Caledonia in the Pacific. (Screenshot, Google Maps / Rex Widerstrom)

.

Certainly, Beijing, which is rapidly expanding its electric vehicle production, would like to gain preferential access to New Caledonia’s nickel reserves and a foothold off the coast of two Western nations whose involvement (prospective, in the case of New Zealand) in AUKUS is causing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considerable concern.

The Sino-Caledonian Friendship Association is financed by the CCP, and the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, is on good terms with CCP leader Xi Jinping.

In February, Mr. Xi sent Mr. Aliyev a message congratulating him on his re-election, expressing their “high level of political mutual trust.”

Yet it would also hint at why New Caledonian authorities banned Chinese music app TikTok during the riots.

.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyevspeaks (R) speak to CCP Leader Xi Jinping (L) during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on April 24, 2019. (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyevspeaks (R) speak to CCP Leader Xi Jinping (L) during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on April 24, 2019. (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)

.

While Beijing’s motives are fairly obvious, Moscow’s are more opaque.

Vladimir Putin—with whom Mr. Aliyev also enjoys warm personal relations—also has a dispute with France, but it’s over Africa, where both European powers are attempting to extend their influence but where Moscow is clearly winning as one state after another severs ties with France.

In contrast, President Macron has been one of the most outspoken critics of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in recent weeks, saying that there were “no limits” to French support for Kyiv and urging others not to be “cowardly.”

The African continent’s natural resources, its 54 votes at the U.N. General Assembly, and its relative proximity to Europe would provide Russia with a valuable ally and a strategic location allowing it to virtually encircle Western Europe.

The Kremlin has been intensely lobbying Africa, through both diplomatic channels and misinformation spread by “troll farms,” particularly in the Sahel region which extends through northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Niger, northeastern Nigeria, south-central Chad, and into Sudan.

While winning over the local population with propaganda, including the state-owned RT television channel, there are reports of an ever-increasing number of abuses by local armed forces and their Russian auxiliaries, including executions, disappearances of civilians, looting and torture.

.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and CCP leader Xi Jinping interacting during a welcoming ceremony at the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Oct. 17, 2023. (Sergei Savostyanov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and CCP leader Xi Jinping interacting during a welcoming ceremony at the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Oct. 17, 2023. (Sergei Savostyanov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

.
An Azerbaijani news site reported that the Baku Initiative Group had been formed at a conference that “discussed ways to eliminate the current colonial policy of France on the African continent,” though the Group makes no mention of Africa in any of its communications.

While New Caledonia’s mineral resources may be attractive to Moscow, the country would not be as much of a geopolitical jewel as it would be for Beijing, though France’s withdrawal from the Pacific would certainly further its strategy of global destabilisation against the West.

It could be that Mr. Putin’s strategy for encouraging Azerbaijan-backed interference is simply to have France distracted from standing up to Russia in Africa by dealing with troubles in its territories—troubles that the Baku Initiative Group may well be planning to spread to other parts of the French-ruled world.

It seems that would not be unwelcome in New Caledonia at least.

Protesters there have waved a banner welcoming Mr. Putin and another, even more explicit, said: “President Putin, free our colonies.”

.