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The French presidential elections and Turkey 8 mai 2007

Posted by Acturca in France, Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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TESEV Foreign Policy Bulletin (Turkey), April 2007, No. 4           

Aybars Görgülü *

The first round of the presidential elections in France will be held on April 22nd 2007. The final election run off between the two most popular candidates from the first round will be held on May 6th 2007, where the Elysée Palace’s new resident for the next seven years will be determined. Jacques Chirac, French president for the last two terms, will not seek reelection and thus a new dawn in French politics beckons.

Despite the fact that the French have focused on the competition between Nicolas Sarkozy from the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) and Ségolène Royal of the PS (Parti Socialiste), both François Bayrou of the UDF (Union pour la Démocratie Française) and Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National, who surprisingly rejected the socialist candidacy in the last elections, have the potential to emerge successful from the first round as one of the two candidates in the second.

On the domestic front, the new president will face the problems of immigration, increasing social expenditure and high unemployment; in the field of foreign affairs the new leader will have to address major issues including the EU’s structural crisis, Lebanon, the war in Iraq, nuclear negotiations with Iran and securing Europe’s energy supply. Considering France’s influence on European politics and the EU’s decision making mechanisms, the new president’s European policy perspective is worthy of consideration.

During the second half of 2008, France will assume the presidency of the EU, giving the new president the opportunity to help formulate Europe’s much needed new vision. Turkey’s position in this new vision can be analyzed within the framework of the presidential candidates’ views. When assessing the current candidates’ outlook on Turkey, it can be argued that a complicated process awaits the country in the near future.

France is one of the main countries whose public opinion is very vocal in its opposition to Turkey’s integration to the EU and hence no presidential candidate unequivocally supports Turkish membership. However Turkey’s accession negotiations have not been left untouched during campaigning. On the contrary, efforts are being made in order to turn opposition to Turkey into a vote winner; Nicolas Sarkozy, thought to be the front runner, stated that “Turkey will be one of the major topics in the French presidential elections of 2007”. However both Bayrou, who is a known Turcosceptic, and Royal, who is the strongest rival to Sarkozy, have declared that they will respect French public opinion on Turkey’s membership to the EU after the completion of the negotiation process.

If we sum up the candidates’ position on Turkey and its membership, Ségolène Royal stands out as the most moderate. Although Royal has made contradictory remarks up until now, she can be seen as a member of the moderate front who thinks that “a no to Turkey is unadvisable”.

Since the announcement of Ségolène Royal as the Socialist party’s presidential candidate, her rival Nicolas Sarkozy has begun to push her on Turkey’s membership process. Despite having appeared to have suppressed the debate by suggesting her stance will reflect the will of the French, she recently went as far as to suggest that Europe is not a territory but a political project and that Turkey has a vocation to join Europe provided if it fulfills the stringent membership criteria. Although she may not have officially declared her wholehearted support for accession, Royal is clearly the most pro-Turkey presidential candidate.

Nicolas Sarkozy has remained unchanged on his opinion of Turkey both before and after he was announced as the UMP’s presidential candidate. Sarkozy has called for the total suspension of negotiations and suggested that Europe reconsider its relations with Turkey on the basis of a privileged membership. From this perspective, Sarkozy has invited Turkey to join a Mediterranean Union under French leadership. No one is sure if Sarkozy will change his draconian views on Turkey if he is to be elected the next president of France.

François Bayrou, who has augmented his votes lately, is directing his campaign by promising a powerful France in a free, federal and influential European Union. Bayrou is a priori against Turkish membership; however it would be a major shock if he were to undermine France’s commitments towards Turkey in the framework of EU membership negotiations once elected.

Lastly, if we take a look to the ultra nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Turkey vision, unsurprisingly it is negative. Le Pen, who has changed tactics in his presidential campaign and has begun to use immigrants in his election advertisements, is known for his anti-European Union sentiment. Le Pen completely refutes Turkish membership and passionately defends cultural and religious arguments stating that Turkey has no place in the EU because it is not European nor Christian.

Onlookers can expect the new president to behave much like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by employing anti-Turkish discourse throughout elections and implementing a more constructive and positive approach after he/she is elected. Neither conservative Sarkozy, who has been vocally opposed to Turkey from the start, nor Royal and not even federalist Bayrou, would want to pass such a sizeable decision calling off negotiations with Turkey if elected.

The newly elected president is likely to emphasize the necessity of the implementation of reforms during the negotiation process and will state that France’s ultimate decision on Turkey will be taken by the nation in a referendum. Given the circumstances, what Turkey needs to do is accelerate the pace of projects which can tackle such an eventuality in a country where support for Turkey’s membership is extremely low. Although the formal negotiation process has slowed down considerably as it is an electoral year, Turkey has to continue supporting campaigns that can change adversary attitudes towards its accession both financially and politically. The negotiation process will be long; however Turkey needs to develop image building strategies that target European societies more than ever.

Since Turkey is facing a Union evolving from a multi-governmental institution into a multi-communal Europe, Turkey needs to emphasize that it is a sine qua non requirement to all the EU’s constituent communities.

* Aybars Görgülü is a program assistant for TESEV’s Foreign Policy Program. He earned his master’s degree in Diplomacy from Clermont-Ferrand University in France.

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