“My fear is that my country will be wiped from the map”: In France, the EU’s largest Armenian diaspora worries for its home under threat6 min read
The security situation in the South Caucasus has hardly improved since Azerbaijan attacked Armenian soil for the first time on 13 September 2022. Continued threats, border clashes, and blockades have kept tensions high. With Armenia fearing for its territorial integrity and for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, its large and influential diaspora mobilises external support. In France, defending the Armenian cause has even made its way into the highest ranks of the political sphere. But is that enough?
It was under a darkening evening sky that the crowd with sombre faces came together at the Invalides, in the heart of the French capital. Many were draped in blue, orange, and red-coloured flags. Others held posters plastered with big letters high in the air: “Pan-Turkism equals fascism” and “Save Armenia.”
The protest in front of the French Foreign Ministry, organised by the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organisations in France (CCAF), the most significant Armenian collective in the country, denounced a military attack on Armenia by its neighbour and long-standing foe Azerbaijan on 13 September 2022. Conflict between the two countries had previously centred on the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, such as in the latest war in the autumn of 2020. But the risk for a direct territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has only increased since then, and more so since 13 September. The ceasefire at their shared border is regularly violated.
Fearing for the fate of the militarily weak nation in the Caucasus, the Armenians of Paris have demanded more support from France, a country that is home to the largest Armenian diaspora in Europe, disregarding Russia. As many as 200,000 Armenians are estimated to be living in the French capital alone, and around 600,000 in all of France.
If the diaspora asks for support from France, it is not without reason: the two countries are closely connected due to their historical and cultural ties. For some, the reasons for this partnership stretched all the way across the continent are clear. “Armenia is European,” says Jacques Papazian, Secretary-General of the Mouvement Arménien, a socio-political organisation founded by the Franco-Armenian diaspora.
There is also much shared history. France was one of the most important refuges for Armenians escaping from the massacres in the Caucasus. Although without a linguistic link as such, Armenia is also part of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, which brings together countries closely linked to France through language, culture, and history.
Vocal support for Armenia has made its way into French politics. In the last presidential elections in April 2022, candidates ranging from Valérie Pécresse to Emmanuel Macron visited Armenia and signalled their willingness to assist the country to both Armenian citizens and the diaspora in France.
There is a considerable amount of lobbyism for the Armenian cause within the French government. “We know that the [French] President is for Armenia,” says Papazian. However, the support that the Franco-Armenian diaspora enjoys does not always translate into political action. Armenia is often overshadowed by more urgent domestic issues, such as the current pension reform, which is sparking mass protests. For the government, which has had to manage one crisis after the other in the past years, supporting Armenia often has to wait. Most recently, the French Senate and the National Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned Azerbaijan and stressed Armenian territorial integrity, but it remains to be seen whether these declarations will have any concrete implications.
Yet, it is particularly the French right wing and far right which entertains a close relationship with the Armenian diaspora, and regards it as an important part of its electorate. This is not always favourable in the eyes of the diaspora. For instance, Séta Papazian, head of the Franco-Armenian collective Vigilance Arménienne contre le Négationnisme, wrote that Éric Zemmour, far-right politician and presidential candidate in the last election, “denatures” and “instrumentalises the Armenian cause.”
Despite the political interest for Armenia in France, many diasporans feel worried and left alone amid the current fragile security situation. Anoush, a 21-year-old Franco-Armenian student attending the protest wrapped in a huge Armenian flag, says: “We get a lot of words. Protests are good, words are good, but what we are waiting for since 2020, and even before that, is action.”
The main fear in the diaspora is Armenia’s military weakness compared to Azerbaijan, which has modernised its armed forces thanks to oil wealth and help from its close ally Turkey. Armenia does not have the military might to defend Nagorno-Karabakh, which is currently cut off from Armenia by Azerbaijanis. Neither does it have the means to defend its own territory, should Azerbaijan repeat its attack from September. In addition, Armenia does not have sufficiently strong allies that could intervene militarily on its behalf.
Despite being a member of the CSTO, the post-Soviet defence alliance spearheaded by Russia, no CSTO country sent military aid to Armenia in September. About 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops currently remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, a consequence of the 2020 war. Following Russia’s inaction and its simultaneous invasion of Ukraine, it has lost its status as a trustworthy military ally in the eyes of many Armenians, especially abroad. According to Papazian, many Franco-Armenians now have one hope in particular – that France “will arm us like it arms Ukraine.”
Whether France is, however, willing and able to do so, remains another question. Up to now, the French government has stressed the necessity of a diplomatic solution to the conflict, and has been keen to take a mediating role in peace negotiations. However, this has been perceived negatively by Azerbaijan, which cancelled quadrilateral talks with both President Macron and Charles Michel scheduled for early December last year.
But delivering military aid remains off limits. For one, such a move could create additional tensions with Russia, which still regards the South Caucasus as a zone of influence. France might also worry that arms may end up in the wrong hands in Armenia. More importantly, there are limits from the EU regarding France’s support. Paris needs to avoid harming deals struck between Baku and Brussels on increasing gas cooperation, now that the EU is reducing its dependence on Russian petrochemicals. Nevertheless, the French National Assembly has recently asked the government to consider economic sanctions for Azerbaijan, should further attacks on Armenian sovereign soil occur. Whether such sanctions could actually be implemented, potentially against the wishes of Brussels, which has also championed a diplomatic solution and proposed itself as a negotiator in the conflict, remains doubtful.
Béatrice, a member of a humanitarian organisation aiding Armenians, is less critical of the French nation than others: “France is doing what it can,” she says. Her relatives in Armenia live near Lake Sevan, not far from areas that were under attack in September. “I am very afraid for them,” she says quietly.