Lunch in Paris: Macron and Pashinyan
At a press conference with his Armenian counterpart, the French President’s comments excite news-sites in Yerevan. But is this simply a storm in a tea cup?
French President Emmanuel Macron welcoming Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the Élysée Palace (June 1, 2021). Credit: Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium/Cover Images
Armenia’s acting  prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, spent June 1 in Paris, where he had a ‘working lunch’ with French President Emanuel Macron. Speaking to the press after that, Macron praised ‘dear Nikol’ for his work fighting corruption in Armenia and underlined French support for developing Armenia’s infrastructure and its efforts against climate change. Caspian regional media, however, were more focussed on Macron’s comments about recent incidents between Armenia and Azerbaijan, six months after the end of the second Karabakh War. The French leader accepted that, overall, the November 2020 ceasefire was holding successfully but that a lot remained to be done, notably the exchange of all prisoners (POWs and others), the removal of access restrictions imposed on humanitarian organizations and the protection of cultural heritage whether Christian or Muslim. He called for improved dialogue, de-escalation and the importance of having all border demarcation issues settled through non-violent negotiation. So far, so many diplomatic niceties.
But what excited the Armenian press was Macron’s demand that Azerbaijani troops immediately withdraw from Armenian sovereign territory to their positions as of May 11, 2021. In this, he referred to a very minor alleged border violation in the Syunik region which Azerbaijani media insist is, in fact, a case of mistaken interpretation over frontier definitions. As we have noted in other articles, the use of Soviet-era maps as a basis for delimitation is fraught with problems, and intense politicization by Yerevan adds to the hurdles of border issues which, many believe, would be best solved more soberly through a trilateral commission.
Macron’s comments elicited a cutting response from Azerbaijan’s foreign affairs spokesperson Leyla Abdullayeva. She reminded the press that as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group for decades since 1997, France had never specifically called for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from vastly larger areas of occupied Azerbaijan even though such withdrawal had been enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions. Given this context, Abullayeva stated icily, Azerbaijan does “not see any role of France in this matter.”
Azerbaijan’s foreign affairs spokesperson Leyla Abdullayeva addresses the press. Image: Courtesy of Azer Taj
It should be remembered that in public statements about Caucasian affairs, it is common for France to adopt a noticeably pro-Armenian tone. This makes political sense in a country where a small but significant proportion of the population have Armenian roots: estimates range from 250,000 to 750,000 people. That’s more than any other EU country, a situation that can be traced back to the post-WWI period. France took colonial control of much of the Ottoman Empire’s middle eastern domains after WWI, including Beirut, to which many Armenians fled following the 1915 massacres. A steady stream came to France in the 1920s and thereafter. One of the greatest names in French chanson, Charles Aznavour, was himself a second-generation Franco-Armenian.
Realistically, the Pashinyan-Macron press conference was thus a page from the standard diplomatic playbook and essentially a non-event. Most of Europe’s press corps were more interested in Macron’s meeting later that day with Libya’s ‘unity’ prime minister. However, in Armenia, Macron’s statements formed another part of the potent media battle accompanying the last run-up to snap parliamentary elections, set for June 20, 2021. This media landscape also includes heated discussions over six Armenian service members arrested by Azerbaijan during what the latter considers to have been a sabotage attempt. It also comes against the continuing backdrop of confusion and anger concerning the repatriation of the remains of those who died during the 2020 war. In recent days, Yerevan had seen street protests from the relatives of those who remained missing after the conflict, with rumours suggesting that some bodies that the Azerbaijani authorities had returned were being deliberately hidden. The situation escalated into a veritable scandal when it became clear that many bodies had been stacked in plastic bags on the floor of a morgue and apparently ‘forgotten.’ The Armenian health ministry later apologized for the bodies’ ‘improper handling,’ and Pashinyan reportedly called for an internal investigation over the affair.
 ‘acting’ because officially Pashinyan stepped down as prime minister on 25th April 2021 when he called the forthcoming election, though in reality he remains in power until votes are counted.