The 11th-12th century church of Saint Paterne in the sleepy hamlet of Bellou-sur-Huisne in France’s western region of Normandy seems like a typical medieval-era edifice in this heavily forested, agricultural area. But there is something special about it: a government-linked foundation based in predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan has paid for part of its restoration.
The project is widely seen as part of a charm offensive launched by Azerbaijan in France that aims, in effect, to buy goodwill and counteract bad publicity arising from Baku’s poor rights record. France, as a major European Union power, is a natural target for such a campaign; it ranks as Azerbaijan’s fifth-largest investor, primarily in the energy sector. And with a large Armenian Diaspora population, the country has also been an important diplomatic booster of Baku’s longtime antagonist, Armenia.
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Régis Genté is a freelance journalist covering the Caucasus and Central Asia.