“I am very glad to be here. I am very glad you are here. We received many letters of support from different political figures. It proves that we exist. It proves that the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) exists. This representation is here for this purpose”. On 25th September, 4.30 p.m., Hubert Fayard had won his bet. The opening of his “Centre de la Représentation de la République de Donetsk en France” (Center of the Representation of the Republic of Donetsk in France) actually took place.
Some 20 to 30 people including media representatives attended the event in the Novotel hotel, on the Avenue du Prado, in Marseille. According to Hubert Fayard’s speech, the inauguration made him a “Consul” of the self-proclaimed DPR in France. In fact, Hubert Fayard is no Consul as the Center is not a Consulate. The French state has not recognised the DPR since its forceful establishment on 7th April 2014, nor did it recognise its Russia-backed separatist sister in Luhansk (DLR).
The overall understanding of Western diplomats and state authorities is that both DPR and DLR are not expressions of “the right of people to self-determination” yet tools in a proxy war Russia has been waging against post-Maïdan Ukraine since Spring 2014. Following the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in the industrial region of Donbass has claimed more than 10,000 lives and violences still go on. Both the Kremlin and its supporters deny any kind of Russian interference, despite mounting evidence. In this context, French authorities have not considered diplomatic recognition of so-called DPR and LPR. Hence the “Center” is registered as a mere association (in accordance with a 1901 law) with no institutional meaning.
The association was registered on 9th June 2017. A few weeks later, member of the city council of Coudoux (south-east of France) Hubert Fayard and some of his colleagues went on a trip to the so-called DPR via Moscow. At a meeting with DPR Foreign minister Natalia Nikonorova, he was appointed as Consul of the Republic in France and trusted with establishing a center of representation. The trip followed some similar trips by French MPs and elected figures. None of them was recognised by French authorities. They did not either prevent nor punished them. Once he was back at home, Hubert Fayard and his supporters went on to establish the Center.
Hubert Fayard used to be a tourism manager. He then entered politics and was elected a district (département) representative for the extreme-right wing “Front National” party. He is now member of a city council of the small city of Coudoux. His traveling fellows and partners in the setting-up of the Center are from the same region: Christian Borelli is member of the city council of Vitrolles, member of “Les Républicains” conservative party. Christiane Pujol (who then traveled with her husband) is a district representative in the Bouches du Rhône départment, for the “Debout la France” nationalist party. She is a former Front National member.
They are all relative newcomers in the primary circle of French vocal supporters of so-called ‘Donbass uprising”. Yet Hubert Fayard is already known for his strong Russophilia and Anti-Americanism, as well as strangely disarticulated speech on history and culture, and some twists in his use of words. Upon flying from France to Moscow, he declared he was going there to “support the Russian army that is constantly shelled by Ukraine”. That was quite a slip of the tongue, as Russian and separatist officials had stubbornly denied the involvement of Russian troops in Donbass. Whether this statement was conscious or not, D&B fears that Hubert Fayard consciously spreads disinformation and fake news. On 25th September, he announced on his Twitter account that “the embassy of Ukraine (in France, ed.) intends to take part in the opening and books two rooms at the Novotel hotel for its military attachés”. Despite several requests, he did not answer to provide evidence of his allegations. The embassy of Ukraine denied the presence of any of its staff in a series of private messages. It did not issue yet a formal statement.
They may be newcomers and somewhat amateurs, yet Hubert Fayard and his colleagues are among the first French vocal supporters of DPR/LPR to obtain concrete gains for their causes. For Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed authorities, the move is important. They are not recognised by any country in the world, but by South Ossetia, that is to say by another Russia-backed unrecognised separatist entity. Russia itself has an ambiguous position: it has not established diplomatic relations with Donetsk and Luhansk as it still officially considers them as parts of Ukraine within the Minsk process. Yet it has recognised passports and a set of administrative documents issued by the unrecognised republics. So-called DPR and LPR pride themselves with any sign of international recognition. The Marseille Center is the 5th in Europe of the kind. One opened in Ostrava (Czech Republic) yet was shut down by a court decision. More are located in Torino (Italy), Vienna (Austria) and Athens (Greece). In most cases, so-called “representatives” are connected to extreme-right wing parties and movements.
In a video statement screened at the opening of the Center, Natalia Nikonorova prides herself with the “establishment of direct contacts with the European audience” and the possibility to “share clear information” from the Center. Even if Hubert Fayard’s initiative has no official institutional connection, his activity as a channel of information may contribute to the overall information war that rages since 2013. A series of speeches at the opening ceremony already contributed to the phenomenon. Controversial writer Xavier Moreau seized the opportunity to remind his audience that “Ukraine never existed (…) it was always an intellectuals’ dream rather than a reality (…) until a radical nationalist movement developed in Western Ukraine”. In his words, the ongoing war is nothing but “an attack on the identity of the South-East Ukraine, that is regions shaped by Russia”. And he warned against the choice of some in the Ukrainian leadership, namely Speaker Andriy Parubiy, to implement the “Croatian solution”, that is to say ethnic cleansing. Such allegations are all questionable. Yet none of them were contradicted by the audience. The discussions held in this Marseille hotel made up a concrete demonstration of virtual texts and comments seen on several social networks and blogs.
As a guarantor of the official policy of non-recognition of so-called DPR, the French ministry of Foreign Affairs filed a complaint to the General Prosecutor’ office to inquire on the “intentions” of the Center and on its compatibility with the law. A similar court process has forced the Czech “consulate” to shut down as such. It appealed to the court. Yet it may still continue to be active under another name. One may imagine a similar scenario for the Marseille Center – that it may keep operating under the disguise of a cultural center, for example. Several observers see it as a new demonstration of the asymmetric use of Western liberal institutions by their opponents. The debate rages now in France on the launching of Kremlin-managed “Russia Today France”, whereas state-owned “France 24” is not allowed to open offices in Russia.
As in many cases, one of the main issues may well be money. Hubert Fayard assures his Center is financed thanks to individual donations from sole French citizens. Indeed, the Center’s opening looked low-key. Participants used basic equipments. Some dysfunctions occurred in the video screenings. Yet the office’s rental and the booking of a conference room in the very central Novotel hotel do generate some serious expenses. As a legally-registered association, the Center has to disclose its financial records. Time will tell whether the Center may exist as both a legal and transparent entity. As of today, it is evidently a victory, be it symbolic, for so-called DPR and its supporters.