Historically, Turkish-French relations have evolved into a cordial detente, but in the aftermath of the arrival of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to power in 2002, this dynamic shifted to one of conflict. The new foreign policy established by the AK Party leadership focused on fulfilling the regional and international prestige of Türkiye and thus challenged the intellectual and social concepts of the Turkish-French relationship.
This new direction of the AK Party was built on an abstract narrative that neither local nor international politics could swallow. The leaders in Ankara, under the direction of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have changed the trajectory of Turkish foreign relations based on a rebalancing strategy of the country regionally in the Middle East, on one hand, and in the European/Western sphere on the other.
This political paradigm is jumped on by Western Europe, and by French leaders and political elites, who use it to argue that Türkiye does not belong to Europe. The “cliche” of the French elite, media, political and military leaders who see today's Türkiye as a rising “imperial” religious rival state has done a lot of damage to relations between the two countries lately.
Geopolitical competitiveness has begun to strain the two countries' relations. Disagreements arose decades ago over the question of Türkiye's full integration into the European Union. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy did vehemently oppose Türkiye’s full accession, saying this great Muslim country is “not European!” The same sentiment was expressed four decades ago by then President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Consequently, a large majority of Turks, elite and politicians alike, did understand what was going on: The question is not about geography, it is all about religion.
Sarkozy did offer, instead, a “privileged partnership” to preserve the strategic relations between the two countries. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is following in the footsteps of his predecessors as he fully assumes his opposition to Türkiye’s EU integration. Macron, however, did suggest the creation of a European Political Community proposal last May in Strasbourg at the European Parliament as the lawmakers debated Ukraine’s ambition to become an EU candidate. It was not to replace EU policies and instruments, but rather to establish regular meetings on key topics to stabilize the European continent, President Macron said during his Moldova trip.
He did not mention Türkiye, who might join this European club – a sort of second-division league. Ankara is a longtime EU aspirant that sits alongside many other European countries in NATO, but Macron has insisted the forum would only be for countries that share the EU’s “democratic values.”
In this contentious relationship between the two countries, a rhetorical style from Macron directed at Erdoğan is on the rise and further impacting relations.
Macron did set the bar high. He is competing with Erdoğan in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine and is desperate to have a cordial call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whereas Erdoğan positioned himself as a credible and trustworthy mediator in the Ukraine war in the early days of the conflict.
This July, Türkiye played a major role alongside United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as Russia and Ukraine sealed a grain deal in Istanbul to unblock Ukraine's Black Sea exports after a Russian blockade raised fears of a global food crisis.
Erdoğan keeps challenging Macron’s policies vis-a-vis the Muslim community in France. Macron and his interior minister lately have been taking bold decisions in this regard in the name of French sacrosanct laicism principles.
In a joint press conference with his French counterpart in Ankara on Sept. 5, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu highlighted the problems of the Turkish and Muslim community in France and the delays in issuing visas to Turkish citizens. The minister also emphasized the fact that the diverging opinions of the two countries should not be a hurdle in working together.
There are other questions on which the Turkish and French leaders could not agree that came to the fore. For example, the Armenian diaspora in France's activism for the recognition of the genocide, especially after Macron established a day of commemoration. The Kurdish question is another example, one that Paris views through the lens of its “moral” support for minorities, while Ankara sees it as a serious issue of internal security and national territorial integrity.
However, there are common elements that enhance their relations, such as their role as two strong regional stabilizing powers in the Mediterranean. Also in their global fight against supranational terrorist groups, both countries look at their national security imperatives as connected to the Syrian civil war. When it comes to Libya, France appears lost due to the complex dynamics of the conflicts, leaving Paris in panic mode and ineffectual. However, the two countries could serve as strong voices to end the Libyan civil war crisis. Finally, there is the thorny issue of migrants and how Ankara could play a major role to stop the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe.
The defeated July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Türkiye had accelerated the loss of Turkish trust in France, the Europeans and the West in general. Another point of discord between Ankara and Paris is the rising role of Türkiye in Africa, a region that Paris still sees as its protected backyard. Ankara’s active foreign policy in Africa aligns with the rise of anti-French sentiment in the African Sahel and in Maghreb countries like Algeria. Meanwhile, Paris has been showing its concerns about the latest Algeria-Türkiye strategic rapprochement.
A rapprochement that further pushes Ankara to place its pawns in the Mediterranean and the African continent. Another strategy that Paris is leaning toward is the new MedEast axis: Greece-Cyprus and Egypt-Israel.
This competition for power paradoxically highlights the complementary roles of the two countries that would act more effectively as partners, rather than adversaries. The power of Turkish diplomacy is real. Ankara has proven itself in the international political arena via its humanitarian diplomatic paradigm and strong understanding of 21st-century world affairs. These doctrines are shaping the entirety of Türkiye’s foreign policy principles and objectives, both regionally and internationally.
Adding to this are the rapid growth and developments of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), an influence that is needed in the hostile region that Türkiye’s geography and history impose. In addition, the country’s developments in unmanned combat technology, such as the Bayraktar TB2, are making all Turks proud, and many countries are expressing the desire to acquire it. As one Le Monde headline stated: It sells like croissants (ça se vent comme des croissants).
From an economic point of view, Türkiye is fully integrated into the European sphere. Its number one economic partner is Germany. Ankara is perfectly positioned to play on the EU members’ differences to assert its position towards the shaky EU.
In summary, reflecting on the past relationship, the two nations generated competition, and sometimes rivalry, due to post-modern local politics and regional geopolitics. France-Türkiye relations are old like the Peace of Westphalia international system. Diplomats always recall the backhand alliance concluded in 1536 between French King François I and Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Showing both their unconventional character for the sake of their nations and their people’s best interest in a tumultuous world affairs disorder.
Why does Macron not read that letter sent by King François I to Sultan Suleiman in order to better understand Erdoğan’s leading role in the region? Or does he prefers Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in the Egypt story?
History sometimes is like real life, it prefers good stories.
*North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)