France accuses Azerbaijan of meddling in New Caledonia with social media campaign

FILE PHOTO: Damage caused by rioters in New Caledonia

PARIS (Reuters) - France accused Azerbaijan on Friday of fanning the flames of riots in the French-ruled Pacific island of New Caledonia by flooding social media with what it said were misleading photos and videos targeting French police.

Paris has cracked down on rioters who are angry over a contested electoral reform and is trying to restore order in the remote overseas territory after three nights of upheaval in which four people have been killed.

The French government's watchdog for online disinformation campaigns, Viginum, a unit created in response to Russian activity in Africa, published a report on Friday identifying Azeri social media accounts spreading anti-French propaganda.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin first levelled the charges against Azerbaijan on Thursday, without providing any evidence. Azerbaijan's foreign ministry swiftly denied what it called insulting allegations and reiterated on Friday it was not connected to the New Caledonia protests.

"Instead of accusing Azerbaijan of allegedly supporting pro-independence protests in New Caledonia, France should focus on his country’s failed policy towards the overseas territories that led to such protests. We once again call on France to stop baseless claims against our country," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajiyev.

Viginum said the campaign included a picture montage showing dead pro-independence protesters next to a white man in a khaki outfit with a rifle held in a shooting position, with the caption: "The French police are murderers".

Viginum said at least 86 posts on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, were published by profiles of people who list a connection to the Azeri ruling presidential party YAP. They used the hashtags #RecognizeNewCaledonia and #FrenchColonialism.

"On May 15 and 16, Viginum has detected on X and Facebook a massive and coordinated spread of content manifestly inaccurate and misleading accusing French police of killing pro-independence protesters in New Caledonia," the report said.

It published screenshots of the accounts and a minute-by-minute account of the posts.

Azerbaijan has reacted angrily to French military support for Armenia, another republic in the South Caucasus with which it has fought two wars in the past three decades.

Azerbaijan last year recaptured the Karabakh region, where ethnic Armenians had enjoyed de facto independence since the early 1990s.

France, which has a large ethnic Armenian community, has been sympathetic towards Armenia and provided military equipment. It asked Baku for clarification in November about a campaign that targeted the Olympic Games.

According to officials the campaign in New Caledonia has been in the works for several months and has even seen Azerbaijan organise anti-French networks on the ground, including through the financing of events.

"Azerbaijan is outsourcing its dispute (with France)," a French source with knowledge of the government's view told Reuters.

(Reporting by Michel Rose and John Irish; editing by Richard Lough and Cynthia Osterman)