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The State of Franco-Turkish Relations in 2020

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

Last week, three people were killed…

…in a knife attack in the Notre-Dame Basilica of Nice. Asreportedby CNN, the suspect, Brahim Aouissaoui arrived at the train station of Nice at 8 AM, changing his clothes and heading to the church where the attack took place. Half an hour later, four policemen  detained the suspect following a strong reluctance. According to the prosecutor, he was “advancing toward authorities in a threatening manner, shouting Allah Akbar, forcing them first to use an electric pulse pistol and then firing their service weapon several times.” Although the investigation is still ongoing, the murder is considered to be an extremist Islamic terror attack. After the incident the French Prime Minister declared  to raise the terror alert level to “emergency” within the Republic .

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced to strongly condemn Thursday’s attack, offering condolences to the families of the victims while expressing solidarity with the French people and their opposition against terror and violence. Can we consider this step in France as a sign of the strengthening of their relationship? Was the diplomatic scandal last week the height of the ongoing decay of relations between the two countries?

In the last decade, but especially in the last month, an increasing tension could be observed between the Turkish and the French leaders. Although in theory, as members of NATO ,the two countries are allies, they have clashed over a range of issues. They have historically supported opposite factions in Libya and Syria, as well as taken different sides in the emerging conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. They also have conflicting interpretations of the maritime rights, and different outlooks of the distribution of the hydrocarbon resources under the eastern Mediterranean.

In the eastern Mediterranean Sea, after the NATO’s 70 years of existence, the two members got into their first military confrontation with each other, albeit seemingly by accident. A collision between a Greek vessel and a Turkish navy frigate, Kemal Reis, occured whilst Kemal Reis was escorting Turkish Oil and natural gas explorer ship in a questionable area of interest .

The Greek ship, Limnos, which was under orders to protect the Exclusive Economic Zone of Greece followed the convoy for days, and on the 12th of August, with a miscalculated manoeuvre of the Kemal Reis’ captain, the two vessels clashed. After the incident, President Erdogan denounced President Macron, following his announcement of increasing the French military presence in the area to ”get insured about the observance of the international law .”

It is a field of conflict in the area because of the different interpretation regarding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea wherein every country with coast enjoys the exclusive right of commerce and the exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas on the closest 370 km of the bordering  Sea . This treaty, however, can only cover so much. Once the two coastal areas of two separate neighbouring countries both encroach upon each other’s exclusive economic zone, there’s no formal legal basis to determine who has the right expound power over the region in question. Both the Greece and Turkish government claim to have the right to this exclusivity surrounding the Aegean islands, exactly where the clash between the two NATO members took place.

Beyond this territory, since 1974, following a Turkish intervention in Cyprus, there is a region dubbed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which has no international recognition but is recognized by Turkey. The Turkish government contests around half of Cyprus’s  Exclusive Economic Zone and has already started the exploitation of the island nation’s resources. This has caused a major conflict  in the territory, and the aggression of Turkey has caught the eyes of not only the neighbouring countries, but the international community as well. The countries of the region have formed an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to combat Turkey, that of which France is member to  as well as the United States under “Observer” status. This shows that there are also more  complex  geopolitical and economic factors at play, which are  manifesting through these local and regional conflicts. We can sense a bit of revenge in these actions for the harm of Western interest in Libya  by European powers such as France and for  the purchase  of the Russian missile by the US.

What we can take as granted is that Macron has strongly condemned Ankara during a standoff between Greece and  Cyprus against Turkey over hydrocarbon resources and naval influence in the eastern Mediterranean in September. He threatened Turkey with sanctions over its activities before the summit of the EU’s seven Mediterranean nations that month.

He also stated that : “Europeans must be clear and firm with, not Turkey as a nation and people, but with the government of President Erdoğan, which has taken unacceptable actions”.

President Erdogan replied with the accusation of Macron of “lacking Historical knowledge”, calling on Macron to look at their own historical records  before giving a lesson in humanity referring to the  role of France in Algeria in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Over all this in the last few weeks a great diplomatic scandal erupted between the two presidents. Following the brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who exposed a crude depiction of Prophet Muhammad to his pupils, Macron announced new provisions which with focus on the protection of France’s secular values against radical Islam. President Erdogan commented on the announcement with concerns about Macron’s mental health, accusing him of islamophobia.

In an address on Friday, Erdoğan said: “What else can one say about a head of state who treats millions of members from different faith groups this way: first of all, have a mental check.”

“What’s the problem of the individual called Macron with Islam and with the Muslims?” he asked.

Macron’s office described the comments as insulting and called the French ambassador in Ankara back for consultation, to which Erdoğan reacted with the announcement of a Boycott against  French merchandise. An office holder of the French government who wanted to remain anonymous highlighted that Erdogan did not offer condolences to the relatives of the victims and did not show support or solidarity for the French people- albeit he did call for solidarity following the Nice attacks on October 30th.

What we can conclude for sure from these two latest conflicts is that there is a slight line between providing security, and the harassment of human rights in regards to privacy. The argument between the respect and freedom of expression, and the sacredness of religious beliefs and their symbols. Based on the actions of the two presidents, it would be quite hard to believe there is anything they can agree on. However,  they both see a murder in  a temple of any Church as a revolting and unreasonable act, and the international community can agree upon that too.

— This piece was written by Janka Balogh, Associate Editor at FA Bulletin by IDSA —