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France obsessing over Turkey’s rising regional profile, scholar 25 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in France, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Hürriyet Daily News (Turkey) March 24-25, 2012, p. 1-6

Barçın Yinanç, Istanbul

There is a competition between France and Turkey as well as its leaders, says a French expert on Turkish-French relations. France sees Turkey as an indispensable partner but also as a potential spoiler in its traditional ‘backyard,’ according to Dorothée Schmid, the head of the Turkey program at the French think tank IFRI.

France is having difficulty grappling with a Turkey that is increasingly moving into areas that Paris has long viewed as its sphere of influence, according to a French scholar of international relations. “The French Foreign Ministry is obsessed by Turkey’s rising profile in the region,” said Dorothée Schmid of the Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI).

“Turkey is an indispensable country, but one that we don’t know how to cope with,” she recently told the Hürriyet Daily News, noting that it had been “unbearable” for France to see Turkey calling itself a natural player in Syria and Lebanon amid the tumult of the Arab Spring.

Does French President Nicolas Sarkozy have a personal obsession with Turkey?

Many in Turkey believe that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has a personal obsession with Turkey.  He is not obsessed with Turkey, but he is negative; he does not want to change his mind. This is one of the fixed points in his political concepts: Turkey is not a European country, it is not exactly an easy partner, and it is not always a friendly country.

Turkey has become increasingly popular among Arab people, while France is sort of a declining figure. Turks sided with the people quite firmly.

I think it is very much to do with the relationship of competition between the two countries and between the two leaders as well. The two [Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] have met very rarely but don’t like each other. They both have this sort of authoritarian type. They like to show that they are the boss, and they want to show that they can be in command.

Where do Turkey and France compete?

In terms of diplomacy, in the Middle East. Sarkozy is not obsessed with Turkey. But the French Foreign Ministry is obsessed by Turkey’s rising profile in the region. That’s for sure. French diplomats [are more likely] to work with the Turks; they take Turkey seriously. They see Turkey as an indispensable partner but also a potential spoiler in the region. For the French, [Turkey] is a spoiler because they are in the French backyard. It has become increasingly popular among Arab people and part of the Arab elite, while France is sort of a declining figure and has had to face few incidents during the Arab Spring. Our first reactions did not exactly assess the importance of the course of the Arab revolts in due time.

Turks sided with the people quite firmly, and they have been [engaging in] communication quite well ever since. But the French were not that brave. In an effort to rehabilitate the image of France in the region, France had to go to Libya to sort of make up for past mistakes like getting closer to [former Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi and for not understanding what was going on in Tunisia.

But France is still an important player in the Middle East and Turkey is seen as a spoiler because it interferes with French affairs. To say that Turkey is a natural player in Syria and Lebanon is really unbearable for the French. But also in multilateral frames, when you have to make up solutions with NATO or as in the case of Syria with the Arab League, Turkey seems to be working … to play its own line and does not seem to be extremely eager to find an agreement with its partners.

France does not consider Turkey as a reliable ally in terms of crises in the Middle East. Turkey is an indispensable country, but one that we don’t know how to cope with.

What do you mean when you said Turkey interferes in French affairs?

An example would be when Erdoğan did his Middle East tour last September and when Sarkozy managed to go to Libya before him.

The French view was that Erdoğan’s initiative was misplaced. He wanted to reap the benefits of the whole operation when he was not in a leading position.

Turkey was not a combatant in the Libyan crisis; it was unfair for Turkey to reap the political profit of the whole Libya operation.

Turks have a veto psychology. When they come together with allies, they say, “I want to have a say because I can say ‘no.’” That’s porblemic for consensus

I think there was an agreement actually on this particular issue between the French and British that the leading profile would be a Franco-British [coalition] with the U.S. in the background; Turks would not have the right to show off too much.

We should actually question the idea that Turkey is that wanted in the Middle East. What we see from France is that there is a blurred vision of what Turks have in mind on Syria at the moment.  The French believe that Turks are not ready to be fully in charge and have difficulties living up to expectations.

Is there a change in French public opinion toward Turkey?

The French public is not anti-Turkish. When you look at the polls, Turkey has a better image in France that it has in Germany. The French have sympathy for Turkish culture and history. So in a way, Sarkozy is a bit at odds with the public. I was amazed to see how Turks receive the negative signals emitted by Sarkozy and how strongly they reacted to it. Reaction to the Armenian law [which would have criminalized denials of the 1915 events as genocide until it was recently struck down by the country’s Constitutional Council] was massive. Turkey is a hot-blooded country. This is something our diplomats have difficulty [in understanding]. They think this is a phase, that Turks are experimenting, that it is searching for a style and a place where it has leverage, but that it is sometimes overplaying its hand.

The Turks, however, think that it was their strong reaction that led to the cancelation of the law. What do you think about this whole controversy about the motion?

I was amazed to see how the whole thing backfired on the president. He was not in control of his majority. There were divergences. What looks strange to me is how Turks managed to appear to look like victims. It’s paradoxical; the objective was to bring up the Armenian issue and have it discussed publicly, even if it was in an awkward way. This is not the best way to raise the debate on the issue. It was interesting to see that Turks showed their weaknesses more than their strengths. They appeared as a victim of the Armenian lobby, which is a very small community [in which few of the associations are radical]. But the mainstream is not anti-Turkish. There is a lot to be done for Turks to understand what goes on in the mind of the Armenian diaspora.

There is more evolution in the diaspora toward dialogue, but you also have organizations that think the right tactic is to hit the Turks hard. But [the latest developments] have shown the limits of the tactic inside France.

What will happen to bilateral ties if Sarkozy is re-elected?

It will go through a new period of strain. It will have the same background: flourishing economic relations with lots of French investment in Turkey – this [French] business community is becoming more vocal. Even if the president remains anti-Turkish, French diplomats and business elite are pro-Turkish and the public is rather sympathetic to Turkey. That context should normally prevent big damage from happening, except if Turks turn anti-French themselves.

And what will happen if Socialist challenger François Hollande becomes president?

Hollande is a very consensual type. He has been delivering rather contradictory messages on Turkey. He said he would deal with the Armenian issue in a spirit of appeasement, but he made promises to Armenians saying he would go for the law again. He says he is not against Turkish accession in the EU but there are conditions. The community-based constituents who are biased against Turkey, Kurds and Armenians, have had traditionally good relations with the Socialist Party, and they are marginally affecting the Socialists’ discourse.

Hollande would do more team work. Other Socialists who are more favorable to Turkey will also have a say.

Will diplomatic issues remain a challenging area in the future, too?

It will be difficult for Turkey and the EU to carve out common positions. I don’t see easy cooperation between the EU and Turkey on Middle Eastern affairs. Turks have a veto psychology. When they come together with allies, they say, “I want to have a say because I can say ‘no.’”

This is a big problem when you have difficulties in building a large consensus. Turkey prefers being in the leading position rather than adopting [itself to the larger] consensus.

‘Candidates can’t ignite racist sentiments’

The recent killings of Jews and French soldiers in Toulouse will bring the issues of security and immigration to the forefront of France’s presidential race, scholar Dorothée Schmid said, but added that the candidates could not afford to ignite racist sentiments. Immigration, religion and the theme of the foreigner as a threat to the homogeneity of French society have provided a tool for right-wing leader to present a message of the need for French unity, said Schmid, an international relations specialist. The classical right has been testing the waters to determine whether it can siphon off the votes of the far-right Front National, as this has increasingly become an obsession of the classical right as it moves further toward the extremes, she said. The Toulouse incident should end these arguments on immigration and security issues, she said. “More serious issues should now be discussed during the electoral campaign.”

* Dorothée Schmid heads the Turkey program at the Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI), France’s most important think tank dealing with international relations. She graduated from Sciences Po Paris with a specialization in economics and holds a Ph.D. in political science from Paris-II University (Panthéon-Sorbonne). As an expert on EU policies in Mediterranean countries and the Middle East, Schmid has worked closely with European institutions on several Euro-Mediterranean research projects and contributed to the debate on political reform and democratization in the region. Her current work focuses on French-Turkish relations, internal political developments in Turkey and Turkey’s new diplomatic ambitions, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Her recent publications include the report “Les Élites françaises et la Turquie : une relation dans l’attente” (French Elites and Turkey: A Pending Relationship), published with the Turkish think tank EDAM (2010). She recently edited a book on Turkey’s policies in the Middle East, “La Turquie au Moyen-Orient : le retour d’une puissance régionale?” (Turkey and the Middle East: Return of a Regional Power?), CNRS éditions (2011).

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