In 2018, Bulgaria reported the EU’s first recorded cases of PPR, a highly contagious viral disease affecting small ruminants like sheep and goats. The samples were taken by the Bulgarian authorities, but the results were confirmed by a lab from CIRAD, a French governmental agency for agricultural research and international development. During the outbreak, owners of sheep and goats from the affected regions had to have their animals slaughtered. The situation provoked public unrest.

“Mariya Gabriel is the wife of French citizen François Gabriel, who was the CEO of a company called CIRAD. Its biolab was in charge of testing samples for a plague affecting domestic animals in eastern Bulgaria,” begins the lengthy Facebook post . Since August 29, 2023, it has been shared more than 9,400 times.

The same claims criticising a so-called “euro-mafia” circulated back in May 2023 (herehere) and were also shared by hundreds of users. At the time, Mariya Gabriel was an EU commissioner and had been nominated as her party’s prime minister-designate. She later became Bulgaria’s deputy premier and foreign minister.

Claims of her possible connection to the lab in question appeared around the time of the outbreak in the summer of 2018 (for example, here or here). 

However, her husband François Gabriel – the current deputy head of the European Parliament president’s cabinet  — was never the CEO of CIRAD.

Screenshot of a Facebook post sharing false information, taken on September 20, 2023

François Gabriel was never CEO of CIRAD

According to its website, “CIRAD is the French agricultural research and cooperation organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions” and has a staff of 1,650 including 800 researchers. It comprises three scientific departments and 29 research units, with Elisabeth Claverie de Saint Martin appointed CEO in June 2021. She took over from Michel Eddi, who held the position from 2013, according to this archived page from the CIRAD website. He was thus in charge during the PPR outbreak in 2018.

“CIRAD does not know Mr Gabriel,” Sophie Della Mussia, the company’s PR manager, told AFP on September 15, 2023.

The French council of ministers appoints CIRAD’s chief executive officer. The president’s decree is then published in the French state gazette, which is called Journal Officiel. An AFP keyword search of the gazette’s website revealed CIRAD’s entire management history since 1990 and Gabriel was not among those mentioned.

A keyword search of CIRAD’s website and its activity reports for 2018 and 2022 also yielded no results.

“I would like to confirm to you that I have, at no time, held any position at CIRAD, an entity that I do not even know,” François Gabriel told AFP in an email on September 14, 2023. He added that his “various responsibilities in the European Parliament are exclusive and incompatible with such supposed jobs”.

Regarding the PPR outbreak, Gabriel replied that he had been a “diplomatic advisor in the office of the President of the European Parliament in 2018” and “obviously had no connection with the subject of peste des petits ruminants”.

According to the European Parliament’s website, Gabriel is now part of President Roberta Metsola’s cabinet. He is the deputy head of cabinet for external dimension.

In February 2017, French media reported that Gabriel was appointed to the cabinet of then EP president Antonio Tajani, with a focus on foreign affairs. Gabriel can indeed be found among the members of Tajani’s cabinet on the EP website, which listed “election observation” and “relations with the city of Strasbourg” as two of his specialities. The photo used in the false Facebook post is the same as the one for Gabriel on the EP page.

Before that, he worked for Joseph Daul, former leader of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, and also served in the Strasbourg mayor’s cabinet.

Mariya Gabriel is a former member of the European Parliament (2009-2017) and has also served in the European Commission. She was the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy (2017-2019) and then Innovation (2019-2023).

CIRAD and the PPR outbreak

In June 2016, the European Commission launched a call for applications to select an EU reference laboratory for PPR (peste des petits ruminants) and in 2017 CIRAD was designated as such.

In June 2018, Bulgarian authorities detected cases of PPR in the eastern parts of the country. They introduced preventive measures such as killing all susceptible animals in the affected villages, establishing protective zones, sampling, etc. Local farmers disagreed with the measures, and there were protests

“Any delay in culling of the susceptible animals on the affected farms will compromise and delay the eradication of the disease and the reinstatement of the previous disease-free status,” Vytenis Andriukaitis, the then European commissioner in charge of health and food safety, explained in this letter to a MEP in August 2018. 

In September 2019, the Bulgarian agriculture minister presented CIRAD’s official report on the outbreak to parliament. According to her speech, “CIRAD detected the presence of the peste des petits ruminants virus in 24 blood samples obtained in June and July 2018”.

“CIRAD, as a reference laboratory for peste des petits ruminants, provided confirmatory analyses… on small ruminant samples collected from outbreaks/restriction zones in Bulgaria,” CIRAD’s Della Mussia told AFP. “All tests carried out in our laboratory on samples received from Bulgaria were transmitted directly to the competent authorities that sent these samples to our laboratory,” she added. 

Protest in front of the Council of Ministers against the mass slaughter of sheep and goats after the outbreak of highly contagious sheep and goat plague near the Bulgarian border with Turkey, on July 18, 2018. (Photo AFP / Nikolay DOYCHINOV)

Up to 4,000 animals culled

Although the post claims that “tens of thousands of domestic animals had been killed”, this is also misleading.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health’s report on the outbreak, 477 goats and 2,506 sheep were killed to prevent the spread of the disease. In October of that year, Rumen Porozhanov, who was the agriculture minister at the time, for his part told parliament that 3,857 animals were slaughtered. 

In January 2019, Bulgarian authorities announced that they would ease some of the measures regarding PPR. The last international health watch bulletin from the ESA Platform — the French platform for epidemiological surveillance in animal health — is from October 2018.

Official statistics from the agriculture ministry show an increase in the population of goats and sheep during that time. In November 2017 there were around 1,316,000 sheep and 257,000 goats in Bulgaria. One year later, there were 1,350,000 sheep and 271,000 goats.

The owners of the euthanised animals received financial compensation from the state.

Rossen Bossev

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AFP Bulgaria

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Translation : Anna Maria JAKUBEK


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