French authorities two days ago protested vehemently over the accusation that a Turkish navy vessel harassed a French ship on a “NATO mission.” This was the latest incident that has occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean between the Turkish and French navies.
We should go back and review World War I and the Battle of Gallipoli before seeing these countries in such a conflictual situation. That battle, for a short time, severed very deep French-Ottoman ties. After the war, despite the abolition of Turkish Capitulations, which deprived France of very important revenue, Turkish-French relations remained lively. The fact that the new Turkish Republic was designed on a pure French, republican, unitary and laicist model certainly played a role.
Turkey has been one of the very few countries to support an “Algérie Française” at the United Nations, not that this had an important effect on bilateral relations, but that does give an idea about the intrinsic ties between the diplomatic staff of both countries. The peak in relations was reached during then-President de Gaulle’s five-day visit in 1968, which encompassed the capital Ankara and Istanbul and saw a real rapprochement between Turkey and France.
In Ankara, Gen. de Gaulle declared to former President İsmet İnönü, then-leader of the opposition, that there were two communities on the island of Cyprus and it would, therefore, be advisable to have a frontier dividing them, like in Thrace. This important stance by France was later reversed when the young and brilliant French President Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 took the defining lead of countries condemning the Turkish intervention in Cyprus after a coup d’etat fomented by the Greek military junta in power in Athens.
Since that decision, everything has gone from bad to worse. There is no single political movement in France that supports Turkey’s membership in the European Union. The exception was former Social Prime Minister Michel Rocard, but that was at a time when he held no political responsibility. Moreover, the resurfacing of the atrocities committed against the Armenian population by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 remains an open wound within the Armenian diaspora of France, almost exclusively made up of surviving migrants from the Ottoman Empire.
To top it off, after 1980 and the military takeover, Turkey has seen an immense wave of its intellectuals, politicians, militants and trade unionists flee for their lives to European countries, mainly France and Germany. That has since created an image, seldom challenged by reality, that Turkey deprives people of their basic human rights. The Kurdish diaspora, and the organizations sympathetic to it, also plays an important role in enhancing this vision of Turks as the oppressors of the innocent, persecuted Kurds.
Despite the fact that the PKK is accepted as a terror group, the sympathy in France for the Kurdish cause has not evaporated and is continuing through a myriad of different links and channels.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no real formal or informal relations between different Turkish political parties and movements and their counterparts in France. Official relations are at their very lowest point and the two countries are having real disputes regarding the situations in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, the jewel of the French navy, has been stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean as a deterrence to Turkey's naval presence.
This is obviously a very hostile attitude vis-à-vis Turkey that can be explained by the strong support extended to Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration by France. The whole situation, however, is definitely more complicated.
France has a dire situation in the Sahel, a portion of West Africa formerly colonized by France. It covers a multitude of countries south of the Sahara Desert including Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and the Central African Republic, all of which have very weak and unstable regimes. These nations face the constant threat of terrorist movements. The terrorists take refuge in the Sahara Desert, which can be to some degree under the control of Libya and Algeria.
There is no longer a coherent or stable regime in Libya, which is in a civil war. Algeria, to some degree, can control the desert regions of its territory, but the Algerian government and its armed forces are preoccupied with stability in their own country, with limited success. In Libya, France has turned toward putschist Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general turned warlord, whose forces control or can control northern parts of the Sahel.
Haftar is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia, which seeks to establish a naval base in North Africa if Haftar wins the war. Egypt, whose economy and regime is totally dependent on the UAE and Saudi Arabia for financial support, is not very eager to send its army into the Sahara Desert.
In spite of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s very threatening declarations on the Libyan border, Egypt will certainly wait, for the time being, to see what develops on the terrain. This also shows that Libya's internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) may not undertake an operation to take Sirte back.
France is relying on Haftar, but the rabble of soldiers under his command are the Janjaweed killers of Sudan and mercenaries from around the region, a large portion of whom are supported by Russia. In no scenario can this be seen as a “morally acceptable attitude” on the part of France, whereas Turkey has been accused of using Syrian combatants in Libya.
Two very old allies, both members of NATO, are facing each other in an inextricable situation. Everyone now waits for the U.S. administration to arbitrate the conflict. With President Donald Trump’s versatility, this might be a long shot. Anyhow, it is not acceptable for France to target Turkey while siding with the Saudis, Egypt, the UAE and Russia. Let us all hope that rationality will somehow prevail and this very complicated and dangerous situation will be overcome.