The Roots Of Tensions Between France And Turkey

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Context

The relations between France and Turkey have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. This was mainly due to the French Lower Chamber passing a bill that will make it illegal for anyone to deny that the 1915 massacre of Ottoman Armenians was genocide, much the same way as denying the holocaust is punishable by law. These tensions are connected to the larger shifts that are occurring as a result of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa.

Analysis

The genocide bill passed by the French Lower Chamber has exacerbated already fraught Franco-Turkish relations and pushed the friendship between the two countries to breaking point.

Prime Minister Erdoğan stated that, “We will inform Africa, we will inform the Middle East and when travelling in many countries we will talk about genocides which they have been trying to make (the world) forget about.”

France was responsible for colonization of Algeria, where 45,000 peaceful protestors were executed in 1945. The French displayed similar behavior in other French colonies, such as Vietnam.

Turkey has reacted to the passing of the bill by recalling the Turkish ambassador from Paris, ending military cooperation and suspending political cooperation and consultation between the countries. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened further action should the bill be passed at the Senate, thus making it law.

While Turkey and France have an important and lucrative trading relationship, estimated to be in the region of $14 billion, it has not been smooth sailing all along for the two nations. The latest souring of relations with regards the Armenian bill is a dramatic shift, but one which was not without predecessor. Warning-signs of a difficult time between the two countries first emerged from French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s strong objection to Turkey entering the EU, and building strong relations with two nations with which Turkey is in conflict: Cyprus and Armenia.

Sarkozy’s opposition to the Turkish bid for EU membership is thought to stem from the fear that Turkey’s entry into the EU would weaken French influence. There is also the question over how the largely Muslim country would fit into the EU, especially given the rise in Islamaphobia that has been seen in the last few years in many EU countries, not the least France.

A broader source of tension for the two nations is their mutual interest in North Africa and the Middle East. Turkey is seen as being somewhat of a resurgent influence in the region, with many speculating about a rise in neo-Ottoman ambitions. However Turkey’s ambitions also lie to the West, and deteriorating relations with France will further jeopardize the prospects of Turkey’s admission into the EU.

NATO relations will also be complicated by the sanctions issued from Ankara, as the alliance is in the midst of key consultations about the deteriorating situation in Syria. With Turkey, NATO’s key partner in the Middle East, not talking to France, and disallowing French military activity on its soil, NATO will have some trouble executing any action on Syria if that is decided on.

Turkey’s position at this time is interesting, given that its relations with Israel have also soured over the last year. The prospects of joining the EU are now not as bright as once thought, with the recession hitting EU countries hard. Turkey is at somewhat of a crossroads, and while it is not as simple as choosing to look to the Middle East or the EU, the prospects in the Middle East, despite the turmoil are perhaps better positioned for Turkey to take advantage of.

The Middle East and North Africa are Turkey’s traditional sphere of influence, and although that was diminished with the fall of the Ottoman empire, there is now an opening for a stable, benevolent “friend” in the region, which Turkey is well situated to play.

So while the Armenian bill presents a break in ties between France and Turkey, it is by no means one that has come out of the blue. The Turkish reaction, therefore, can be speculated as a signal that its shift in focus for the time being will be toward the Middle East and the Arab Spring-affected countries, where there is greater hope of spreading its interest than in the EU.