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Turkey and France were once great friends 26 avril 2011

Posted by Acturca in France, History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie.
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Guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 April 2011

Elif Shafak

The tension between the two nations has made us forget they have more in common than populist politicians suggest

It is no secret that little love is lost between French and Turkish politicians these days. French president Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear more than once that he would like to keep Turkey outside the European Union. During his term in office, relations between the two countries has deteriorated visibly.

In a recent speech, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that he found the situation frustrating and tiring. When Sarkozy visited Ankara this year (the first visit by a French president since 1992), the press coverage in Turkey was mixed at best. News that he had been chewing gum during the official welcome ceremony has been interpreted as further testimony to his aversion to Turks. At his farewell ceremony, the mayor of Ankara chewed gum too, as a sign of protest.

The crisis in Libya could have offered a legitimate humanitarian cause for the two parties to finally collaborate, but even that has come to naught. Instead, one after another both sides keep launching bitter remarks, sarcastic gum chewing and macho soundbites. The current tension seems to weigh so heavily upon our minds that many have forgotten that France and Turkey had once been great friends.

I was born in Strasbourg in 1971. I grew up holding French literature in high regard. This is no coincidence: Turkish writers’ appreciation of French culture and literature goes way back. Late in the 19th century, Ottoman novelists and intellectuals – the bellwether of Turkish modernisation – were deeply influenced by trends and debates in France. As early as the 16th century, an alliance was established between Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent. Though relations took a sour turn in 1798, when Napoleon I invaded Egypt – previously Ottoman territory – French was the primary foreign language for the Ottoman elite. At school we read Hugo, Maupassant and we knew Balzac far better than eastern writers, if there is such a lump-sum category. Until 2000, France was cumulatively the main foreign investor in Turkey in a wide range of areas, from automotive to insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

This is not to deny that there has been an anti-Turkish rhetoric in France for a long time. Chateaubriand’s writings are replete with chilling remarks and sweeping generalisations about Turks, who he clearly sees as antithetical to western civilisation, unable to create anything, be it architecture, art or literature. In his view, Turkey is the absolute Other.

This, however, is only one side of the coin. On the other side is Lamartine. In his Voyage en Orient, one encounters a far more balanced view of Turkish society and a surprisingly positive description of the people. If Chateaubriand’s legacy continues in French politics, so does Lamartine’s.

When the new Turkish nation state was established in 1923, the country adopted a series of reforms in sync with the French legal structure. Turkish secularism is not based on the Anglo-Saxon model but is a direct extension of French laïcité: a secular society in which religious authorities don’t meddle with government affairs and the government doesn’t get involved with religious affairs. In this model, individual freedom is secondary to maintaining the neutrality of the state. Unlike in the US, for instance, public servants and public space ought to be impervious to all religions and religious symbols.

Given that Turkey has styled itself after the French model, it is no wonder that the two countries are today involved in similar debates on the role of the headscarf in the public space. In both, the endeavour to ban the headscarf has created only deeper resentment and conflict. In Turkey, the debate has mainly focused on the question of whether women who work in government institutions are allowed to wear headscarves: since 1982, a law decrees « the rule that female civil servants’ heads must be uncovered ». When in 1997 the same law was interpreted to effect a ban on headscarves at universities, however, it drew many complaints from the public. What will happen when a woman with a headscarf is elected to enter parliament is a question that has yet to be tackled.

The problems Turks and French face, including the way they fail to handle them, are interestingly similar. Turkey might not have all the answers, but it has plenty of experience that France could learn from. Even their reactions are interconnected. A Turcophobic statement in France triggers anti-western sentiments in Turkey and an anti-western statement in Turkey feeds Islamophobic sentiments in France.

It is time to get out of the vicious circle. It is time we start to get to know each other and build an alternative language. Politicians have hijacked the relationship between our two countries for too long and they are not doing a good job at it. Young people, college students, businessmen and businesswomen, journalists, artists, writers – we can all do better in building a new dialogue. Turkey and France would benefit tremendously from a constructive, genuine exchange. And while there is no reason to feel too optimistic in the short run, the good news is the two countries have much more in common than populist politicians on each side are willing to recognise. Alors!


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