By Dikran Yegavian
LYON – After having being postponed for three months, the second stage of municipal elections in France took place on June 28, leaving a record of Armenian absenteeism. Though a candidate of Armenian descent, Jeanne Barseghian, won in the municipality of Strasbourg, these elections are marked overall by the decline of Armenian forces and the growing influence of French-Turkish candidates.
The first round of municipal elections took place during an unsettling climate on the eve of a pandemic lockdown. The scheduling and implementation of the second round was not just a welcomed sign of the resumption of the democratic process, but equally salient, a return to some form of normalcy in our lives. While this is an overall positive step for French civic life, for some citizens, their pre-lockdown political concerns have festered and now threaten to derail the causes for which they fight. I speak of course of the French-Armenian community and its struggle to ward off the continued encroachment of the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments on civic life in France through their well-financed and increasingly organized emissaries in local French communities.
A conspicuous example of Turkish and Azeri interests operating on French soil is the relationship cultivated between Rachida Dati, a first time challenger of Anne Hidalgo, the current mayor of Paris. For many years, she has been lobbying on behalf of Azerbaijanand has become a reliable propagandist of Azeri and Turkish interests in France
While the French-Armenian community is undoubtedly proud of its decades-long achievements in France, particularly of the French government’s official commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in 2019, those same accomplishments are on a tenuous footing these days. Resting on our laurels provides an opening for the political strategy of the Azerbaijani and Turkish governments to undermine our work and places us in a politically precarious position with elected officials in France.
The Turkish State’s Strategy in France
There are currently around 330,000 Turkish nationals living in France. Most of them hold dual citizenship in France and Turkey and they vote as a unified bloc at the direction of Ankara. They remain overwhelmingly loyal to the autocratic regime of Erdogan, upholding a political philosophy that is anathema to the governing philosophy of the French Republic.
Currently, the Turkish diplomatic services in France are represented by six general consulates in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg, Nantes and Bordeaux, which cast a large net across the country.
In addition, the Turkish Foreign Ministry functions as a tree structure across the continent. One branch is the UTDE, the Union of European Turks Democrats, which carries out the actions and ideology of the ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Another branch is the COJEP, an NGO ruled by pro-AKP officials founded in 2015.
The Parti Egalité et Justice (PEJ) is a micro-party based in Strasburg, which advocates the ultranationalist discourse of Ankara. Its sidelining in 2014 forced the Turkish community to adopt a new strategy: the pro-AKP lobby is now trying to reinvent itself as a party geared towards Turks and Muslims in lower-income neighborhoods. Like its mirror operation in the Netherlands, the Denk, which placed several deputies in Parliament, it is a miniature replica of the Turkish presidential movement. In France, this micro party cynically enmeshed itself in the fight against Islamophobia and prepared its candidates for the last legislative elections of 2017 accordingly.
In order to streamline its control and messaging, the Turkish state set up several institutions such as the DITIB (The Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs), better known as the Diyanet, a powerful religious administration relying on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It manages mosques and cultural associations. In 2017, there were more than 151 Turkish imams (more than the Algerians or the Moroccans) who were supplemented with dozens of Turkish language teachers, all of whom are employees of the Turkish government. These officials are sometimes used to denigrate the opponents of Erdogan, such as leftists, Kurds or those suspected of belonging to or supporting Fethullah Gülen’s movement. The DITIB manages about 250 places of worship in France, including more than 60 in Alsace-Lorraine in the east, according to figures from the Ministry of the Interior. But the Islamist organization Milli Görüs (National vision), from which Erdogan came forward, oversees 70 other associations.
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All of these structures, including the powerful Müsiad, a pro-regime Turkish trade union, which financially supported their achievements, and the Scholar Grup al Kindi, are working hard for years to shore up their power at the local level. In order to reach their goal, they use religion and education as a way to boost their growing influence and maintain the local Turkish community mobilized to serve the interests of Erdogan’s policy domestically and abroad. Enjoying considerable means, they successfully managed to eradicate all of the work of the leftist organizations (composed of Alevis and Kurds), by intimidating them.
The Challenge of the Municipal Elections
The municipal elections are an eloquent example of the Turkish methods of shoring up their own power base at the local level. After the lockdown, French-Armenians were blindsided at how active French-Turkish candidates have been, particularly how bold their actions have been in historically Armenian communities within France.
The Rhône – Alpes region, located at the center of the country, with Lyon as its major city, is known for being a hub of Armenian activism in the 1970s and 1980s; a city where Georges Kevork Kepenekian, a local figure of the community was the acting mayor between 2017 and 2018. But now, with 140,000 Turkish residents, it is the most important base of the Turkish diaspora in France. Thus, a new reality confronts us in the French political system.
A generation of binational activists born in Turkey but raised in France are running for public office in France. These candidates maintain strong ties to Turkey through family and politics. Domestic French politics can no longer ignore them as they seek elective office. Established French politicians offer us reassurance of their support, but those promises may eventually ring hollow.
First and foremost, we have a candidate in the Lyon metropolitan area, where the chairman of the French Turkish Cultural Center, Izzet Doganel, a loyal partisan of Erdogan, has joined a slate of candidates supported by the former mayor and the former Minister of the Interior, Gérard Collomb. Doganel even organized a meeting in his local municipality for the Turkish president.
In Valence, a town of 65,000 inhabitants, amongst them more than 15,000 Armenians (most from Syria), the Turkish lobby has made a push. The mayor, Nicolas Daragon is familiar with Armenia and Artsakh. Valence has signed a charter of friendship with Stepanakert. However, that did not prevent him from welcoming on his slate a French Turk activist, Yasin Yildirim, is suspected of denying the reality of the Genocide.
In Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon, the “Macronist” MP Yves Blein, who is a candidate for the municipal elections, made an alliance with a local leader of the Turkish community named Yalcin Ayvali. This gentleman does not hide his closeness to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yalcin Ayvali is well known in Vénissieux, according to the Le Progrès daily.
In 2017, he ran in the European elections under the banner of the Equality Justice Party (PEJ). No wonder, to remind the reader, as that is an Islamo-conservative party and a communitarian formation close to Erdogan’s party, the AKP, which aims at redefining secularism. In addition, Yalcin Ayvali regularly retweeted messages from Elias Imzalene, described as a “Salafist agitator“. For the municipal elections, the pro-Erdogan candidate presented himself without a label, indicating that he no longer belonged to the EYP. With 5% of the vote, he just managed to advance to the second round, which allowed him to seek an alliance with Yves Blein.
In Meyzieu, a small town near Décines with important communities of both Turks and Armenians, the mayoral candidate, Christophe Quniou has formed an alliance with a French-Turkish candidate named Michaël Hamza Ozer. The alliance with Ozer caused most Armenians candidates to withdraw from Quniou’s list, but oddly, one Armenian remained with the stated goal of seeking election.
The Armenians More Divided than Ever
Although the French-Armenian community’s main organization for political power and representation, the CCAF (Council of Coordination of Armenian Organizations of France), issued on June 11 a statement denouncing the disguised entry of Ankara’s negationism in French political life, the local Armenian activists seem to be more divided and facing internal struggles to organize and motivate.
One disheartening development is why the candidacy in Meyzieu was not mentioned in the statement issued by the CCAF.
Another disturbing issue is the ambivalence of the Armenian candidates for the council of Valence who did not bother to challenge Yasin Yildirim on a fundamental issue by asking him to explicitly clarify his position toward the Armenian Genocide. Another problem was the fragmentation of the Armenian political landscape in Valence and its neighboring town of Bourg Lès Valence. It was in Bourg Lès Valence where some Armenian activists made the odd choice of challenging the Armenophile mayor, Marlène Mourier, who has always been a constant advocate of the Armenian community. During her last term, she tirelessly fought for the recognition of the Artsakh Republic by endorsing the link between her town and Shushi.
We cannot deny that personal and shared interests are colliding to the detriment of the Armenian community. Coupled with a lack of vision and strategy, we are setting ourselves up for a dramatic failure, while enemies of our shared cause are on the ascendancy.