Hundreds of Turkish ultranationalists have marched through the streets of two French towns, chanting threats against Armenians, as tensions over the war in Nagorno-Karabakh boiled over.
A French anti-racism group and an organization representing France’s Armenian community said what they called the “hunt for Armenians” was orchestrated by the Grey Wolves, a militant Turkish ultranationalist group which is active in Western Europe and banned in a number of countries, including Austria. Footage of the marches, which took place on Wednesday night, was circulated on Twitter accounts featuring wolf emojis and references to the Turkish name of the ultranationalist organisation, Bozkurtlar.
The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) and CCAF, the Coordination Council of Armenian Organisations in France, both called Thursday for the Grey Wolves to be banned.
“French people of Armenian origin must be able to live in France in safety, without being targeted by acts of violence and racial hatred,” the CCAF said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the CCAF, who did not want to be named for security reasons, said no Armenians were injured during the intimidating marches, as most people were at home due to coronavirus restrictions.
But her organisation was hugely concerned by the incident, which for her community carried echoes of the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans.
“We saw hundreds of Turks going into the streets looking for Armenians,” she told VICE News. “It’s a very scary situation and it reminds us of the darkest stages of history.”
The intimidating scenes took place in Vienne and Décines-Charpieu, both located near Lyon, a major hub of France’s Armenian community, which is the largest in the European Union. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway enclave within Azerbaijan which is run by ethnic Armenians, with the Azeris receiving heavy military support from Turkey.
Local officials and police said a mob of Turkish nationalists, estimated to number between 150 and 250, descended on Vienne at about 7.30pm. Footage from the scene showed a large crowd advancing on a rapidly retreating police car, waving Turkish flags and yelling. Explosions are heard and projectiles are seen hurtling through the air.
The mob then converged on nearby Décines-Charpieu, a heavily Armenian commune in the Lyon metropolitan area where the Armenian Genocide Memorial is located. Security was ramped up at the site once officials became aware of the trouble.
Laurence Fautra, mayor of Décines-Charpieu, said in a statement that a procession of about 250 people marched through the city centre waving Turkish flags, yelling violent threats like: “We are going to kill the Armenians.”
Regional officials tweeted that police had intervened to restore order in response to “an illegal grouping of individuals from the Turkish community, ostensibly wishing to do battle with people of Armenian origin.” It said order was restored without violence, with 65 people receiving verbal warnings for breaching coronavirus restrictions.
The marches followed violent clashes earlier Wednesday, when a group of pro-Armenian demonstrators blocked a motorway near Vienne, and clashed with members of the Turkish community. According to police, clashes with knives broke out, and four people were injured, including a 23-year-old man who was hit with a hammer.
French officials, police, and anti-racism groups all denounced the marches. The anti-racism group LICRA said in a statement that the gatherings amounted to “veritable pogroms against members of the Armenian community” and said the Grey Wolves “must be dissolved.”
France’s Independent Union of Police Commissioners also denounced the marches, saying that community groups did not have the right to “impose their own law.”
“Communitarianism must not take precedence over the Republic!” the group tweeted.
The CCAF spokeswoman said the tensions were a consequence of the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bellicose statements against Armenia. She said her group was working with French authorities to prevent a repeat of the marches, and to try to outlaw the Grey Wolves in France.
“We are very concerned about this situation,” she said. “This is happening after Erdogan’s declarations. There’s no way we’ll let his politics of terror take hold in France.”