Yelena Gabrielyan, a reporter of Radio France Internationale (RFI) well-known in France and Ukraine, reported “Aravot” the details of Francois Hollande’s meeting with the country’s Armenian community, the sentiments in the country associated with the upcoming presidential elections and the prospects of the Armenian-French relations in the light of the President of the Republic of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan’s upcoming visit to Paris and the Armenia-EU framework agreement.
– The meeting of the Armenian community with French politicians was held in Paris, which was also attended by the President of the country, Francois Hollande. You were one of the meeting attendees. Will you share your observations about the preferences of the Armenian community in France ahead of the presidential elections, the importance of which is hard to overestimate?
– Yes, the event took place on February 8. The first dinner with the French President organized by the Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations in France was held in 2013, one year after Francois Hollande winning the elections. Since then, this event became a tradition. However, it should be emphasized that there always was a contact between the Armenian community and the French authorities. About half a million of Armenians are living in France. They are well integrated, and a part of them has assimilated. Therefore, first, they are French, citizens of France who play an active role in the political and cultural life of the country. This community being an integral part of the worldwide Armenian diaspora is already a part of the French Republic.
For this reason, for example, such a sensitive topic as the recognition of the Armenian Genocide was raised at the national level. Let me briefly remind the key moments related to this issue. France passed the law on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 2001, and it should be noted that many countries followed this example. Afterward, in 2012, the first parliamentarian Valerie Boyer came up with a legislative initiative to criminally punish those who would deny the Armenian Genocide. The two Houses of Parliament passed this law causing not only the admiration of local Armenian community but also Armenia.
I even remember a story how a married couple in Armenia named their newborn son after Sarkozy, therewith thanking the President for this law. Moreover, all of this was taking place during the elections. However, the right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy defeated and later the Constitutional Council rejected this law. Socialist Francois Hollande coming to power pledged that a new text will be passed but there is still no progress. In France, many people have arrived at a wrong opinion that the Armenians are voting in favor of those who promise to deal with the Armenian Genocide issue. Nevertheless, this issue is addressed by almost all presidential candidates … With the exception of those who are conventionally called anti-system extreme rightists and extreme leftists. Therefore, there are no the so-called “Armenian votes” in the elections here. I asked Charles Aznavour who is always an honorary guest in this traditional dinner how the Armenians vote here, and in my opinion, he gave a very clear and precise answer, “They vote like French people.”
– Did the presidential candidates attend the meeting?
– Yes, only socialist Benoit Amon was present. However, Emmanuel Macron (who did not reply to the invitation) and François Fillon were also invited. The right-wing candidate did not come and notified two hours before the event. The point is that his popularity is missing in connection with recent revelations pertaining to his wife and children’s alleged fictitious matters. It must be said that François Fillon enjoys the sympathy of some circles of French Armenians. François Fillon’s position on Russia is close to them, also his nature of being traditional Catholic, which was not once expressed in favor of Christians in the Middle East in the context of the Syrian conflict. Apropos, the dinner was attended by rightist Valérie Boyer who is from his team and who visited Syria last year with a group consisted of 30 French parliamentarians and met with Bashar al-Assad. The visit coincided with the Easter holiday of Catholics as a solidarity with Christians in the Middle East. So far, Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations in France has not expressed itself in favor of any candidate. Frank (Mourad) Papazian who was presiding the Council with Ara Torosyan is a member of the ARF Bureau supported the candidacy of socialist Hollande in 2012. It is hard to say whether this party member will receive the support this time or not.
However, it is important to note that the position of the Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations of France does not have a significant impact on how the French Armenians will vote because many Armenians do not identify themselves with this organization. I would like to say also a few words about the current situation: the social polls show the following snapshot: Marine Le Pen is number one by popularity – 26%, Fillon and Macron – 20% and Benoit Amon still – 16%. In summary, we can say that the French Armenians when voting will, first of all, consider the programs of the candidates from the perspective of their effectiveness in France but they will pay more attention to sensitive issues, including those that are related to internal politics.
– President Hollande mentioned in his speech that he has invited Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to Paris to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and Armenia. France is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group coordinating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is also one of the leading countries in the European Union with which Armenia is going to sign a new framework agreement after the failure of the EU Association Agreement. Given the level of the Armenian-French relations and today’s dynamics in the international politics, what outcome can we expect from this meeting?
– As mentioned by the French President, the meeting is scheduled for March 8. Francois Hollande once again emphasized his commitment to the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and reminded the efforts made in Paris. The President indicated his efforts to organize a meeting of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such a meeting was last held in France in October 2014. After the April events and the meeting of the presidents of the two countries in Russia, there were talks about the possible continuation of the negotiations in Paris. Yet, no such meeting was held. In addition, Serzh Sargsyan’s visit to France will take place almost one year after the April events.
As for the EU Framework Agreement, its signing is scheduled for the spring. It will replace the acting agreement on partnership and cooperation. There are many clauses there, including the liberalization of the visa system. After Armenia refused to sign the Association Agreement, in 2014, Francois Hollande literally announced the followed during his visit, “Armenia is in a special situation conditioned by geopolitical realities, and the choice to join the Customs Union should be understood and not judged”. As mentioned by Hollande, given the situation, the European Union should develop an exceptional and unique situation in a format, which will allow Armenia to get involved in the process of approaching the European Union without breaking off the other relations. As to what extent the new framework agreement will be “exceptional and unique”, I think it will be known soon.
– French Ambassador to Armenia Jean-Francois Charpentier during the press conference openly announced during a meeting with reporters openly stated, “We are closely following the economic policy of the Armenian government, the reforms in the tax sphere, the struggle against corruption and monopolies, and every step that refers to the business world cannot be ignored. So, Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union where the monopoly and corruption are an integral part of the economic and political system. Was there a reference made to the Armenian-French economic cooperation during the meeting?
– Despite the fact that the representatives of the political circles, as well as French-Armenian business were not present at the meeting on 8 February, no special attention was given to the economic cooperation between Armenia and France. But regular meetings are held in France on this subject. For example, such a meeting took place two years ago, and it was dedicated to the possibilities which Armenia as a member of the Customs Union can offer to the Western entrepreneurs.
When Russia and the EU were imposing sanctions against each other, the investors began to think about how it is possible to work in such conditions. Therefore, I had to communicate with the representatives of big consultancy companies that were viewing Armenia as an alternative. In other words, if it is difficult to work in Russia due to sanctions and reach this market, then why not to do it thru a Customs Union member Armenia. These questions were discussed during the business forums in Paris two years ago. Whether during that time, the Western entrepreneurs managed to evade the Russian sanctions thru Armenia, I am not aware of. It is possible that such a model exists.
– Let’s look back and talk about the upcoming elections in France. After the elections in the United States, France apparently could not avoid the subject of Russia during domestic political debates. To what extent it is possible to judge as an external observer, France also has close relations with Moscow or the sympathy toward Russia can discredit the politician who aspires to take over a top job. We have the examples of Marine Le Pen and François Fillon. On the other hand, they speak about French political rising celebrity Emmanuel Macron who was targeted by Russian propaganda. In your opinion, what do the upcoming presidential elections in France promise? How will it affect the EU and the European policy in the context of Russia-West?
– Judging by the situation, few predictable is promised. Therefore, as to how they will affect the EU, it is hard to say. As for Russian influence in France, certainly, it is not the main topic of the election campaign but one of them. The functionaries are speaking about the negative impact of Russian mass media which are broadcast here in French. When covering very emotional topics, they are accused of disinformation and propaganda, such as Islam, immigration, the fight against terrorism and so on. I will refrain from giving an assessment to the activities of these media but they truly cause a concern to some politicians. Possible hacker attacks are also discussed.
Let me remind you that in April 2015, the hackers broke the TV5 Monde. Initially, they had announced about their participation in the IS but later the investigation revealed that it is backed up by Russian hackers’ group – APT28. The damage caused was estimated at several million euros. Recently, the French authorities announced about the intensification of the cyber security system. Investigation services have a special department that deals with it. NATO also has a relevant department. As for the sympathy of some politicians for Russia which discredits them… In France, in the eyes of the voters, a politician is discredited, first, by the action, the violation of the law. If close connections of a politician with Russia contain illegal actions, it certainly will harm his reputation.
For example, two years ago, the press reported that Marine Le Pen has received money from the Czech-Russian Bank. One way or another, it is a violation of the law; the political party has the right to receive money from foreign banks on the condition that it will not be a hidden subsidy or a money laundering. However, the case did not get to the court, and it remained unclear what was the connection of this bank, which already became bankrupt with the Russian authorities who opportunely do not hide their assistance to Le Pen’s party. In conclusion, we can say that the Kremlin has two candidates in France: François Fillon and the so-called anti-systemic Marine Le Pen. There is also one more person, extreme leftist leader Jean-Luc Melanson who expressed in favor of Russia’s actions in Syria. However, he does not enjoy a high reputation in Russian mass media pages in France as Le Pen.
As far as I know, he is not often invited to Russia as the leader of the “National Front” party. In general, the French press names these three candidates pro-Russian. Hence, as the editor-in-chief of an influential Le Monde newspaper recently wrote in his editorial: there is one politician in these elections who has not even nominated his candidacy but already seems to win, and it is Putin.
Photo from France 24