From having a western-aligned foreign policy and secular domestic outlook to the recent emergence of neo-Ottoman policies and regional ambitions as an emergent power, some European states, including France, are concerned about Turkey’s gradual rebranding of itself as a world power in its own right. Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East are the cornerstones of the wedge drawn between Turkey and the EU, specifically, Turkey and France. These tensions have often triggered diplomatic standoffs, including the call to block Turkey’s EU accession negotiations in 2019. Despite this, the bilateral relations between Turkey and EU member states have prospered. But, recently, these diplomatic standoffs are transforming into crises, and they might have broader implications for Turkey and EU member states in the future.
Various factors contribute to the difficult ties between France and Turkey. French relations with the Kurds and a formal coalition with the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) to counter the threat of Islamic State in Syria is one of the major factors of contestation between both states. This long-standing rift has become the cause of the conflicting developments that followed the Paris shootings. In the last week of December 2022, an unknown gunman attacked a Kurdish cultural centre in central Paris, which resulted in three deaths and three injuries. The incident triggered mass protests in the city. The political and governmental officials also condemned the attack, while Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron tweeted that “The Kurds of France” were targeted in the heart of Paris. Many other dubbed the attack as the result of racism and xenophobia. The protests caused diplomatic angst in Turkey because, reportedly, some French politicians attended a protest in which the protestors were waving flags of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is outlawed by Turkey.
Recently, these diplomatic standoffs are transforming into crises, and they might have broader implications for Turkey and EU member states in the future.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry regarded the act of French politicians’ attendance at the protest where PKK flags were being waved as “anti-Turkish propaganda”. It is because Turkey has declared PKK a “terrorist organisation”, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu asserted that such activities by French politicians should not be allowed. PKK has a record of being involved in terrorist activities in France as well. Hence, France is facing pressure on both fronts, from Turkey as well as from its own people, to ban PKK as a terrorist organisation, which is a dilemmatic position for France, provided that it supports the same PKK in Syria.
Despite French law enforcement’s confirmation that the attack was carried out with racist motives by a person who has a record of racist violence, some protestors and especially the Kurdish activist groups, have accused Turkey to have ordered the strike. They believe that the Turkish secret groups and ultra-nationalist groups are operating on the French territory.
This is not the first time the alleged propaganda warfare has been waged between France and Turkey. Both the leaders, Tayyip Erdogan and Emmanuel Macron, have engaged in heated statements against each other from time to time. Their mutual rivalry went to the extent that Tayyip Erdogan once called the French President “brain dead” due to French criticism of Turkish involvement in Syria. Further strained relations occurred during the French President’s hard-line stance against the alleged Muslim separatism in France and his overall policy attitude towards Muslims. Tayyip Erdogan unhesitatingly responded to his stance by stating that Emmanuel Macron “needs treatment” and mental checks over his attitude towards Muslims. France has also repeatedly accused Turkey of instigating anti-French propaganda, which Turkey denied being a part of. French President Macron, during his visit to Algeria in August 2022, stated that there are various groups operating against France which are covertly supported by countries including Turkey, China and Russia. It was a bold and somewhat miscalculated statement by the French President, reflecting the ongoing situation in the European theatre and Turkey’s significance in it. However, Turkey readily denounced the accusation.
The recent event of the Paris shooting and the diplomatic outburst it caused depicts the patterns that prevail in the bilateral relations between both countries. These patterns have caused unpleasantness in the overall backdrop of the mutually beneficial relationship between the EU and Turkey, specifically during the prevailing Russia-Ukraine conflict. It has affected the avenues where both countries could find mutual ground to protect their interests in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The much-anticipated Macron’s visit to Turkey after an open invitation by the Turkish President in early 2022 is also likely to be cancelled, which is also an irksome development. Strategic interests aside, the personal animosity between the leaders of both countries has fanned the confrontational foreign policy towards each other. It is to be seen that France, to what extent, being an influential member of the European Union, could disrupt the EU-Turkey relations, which otherwise could further grow into a mutually beneficial arrangement.