Historically, Franco-Turkish relations have evolved into a warm détente, but after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, this dynamic shifted to one of conflict dynamics. The new foreign policy of the AK party leadership focused on fulfilling Türkiye’s regional and international prestige, thereby challenging the intellectual and social concepts of the Franco-Turkish relationship.
This new orientation of the AKP was based on an abstract narrative that neither local nor international politics could swallow. Leaders in Ankara, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have changed the direction of Turkey’s foreign relations based on a strategy of regional rebalancing of the country in the Middle East on the one hand and in the European-Western sphere on the other.
Western Europe and French leaders and political elites jump on this political paradigm, arguing that Türkiye does not belong in Europe. The “stereotype” of the French elite, the media, political and military leaders, who see modern-day Türkiye as a burgeoning “imperial” religious rival state, has wreaked havoc on relations between the two countries in recent times.
Geopolitical competition has begun to strain relations between the two countries. Disagreements arose decades ago over the issue of Turkiye’s full integration into the European Union. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has vehemently opposed Turkiye’s full accession, saying that this large Muslim country is “not European”! The same sentiment was expressed four decades ago by then-President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Consequently, a vast majority of Turks, elites and politicians alike, understood what was going on: the issue is not about geography, it’s just about religion.
Sarkozy instead offered a “privileged partnership” to preserve strategic ties between the two countries. Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron is following in the footsteps of his predecessors as he fully embraces his opposition to Türkiye’s EU integration. However, Macron proposed the creation of a proposal for a European Political Community in the European Parliament last May in Strasbourg, as lawmakers debated Ukraine’s ambitions to become an EU candidate. It should not replace EU policies and instruments, but set up regular meetings on key issues to stabilize the European continent, President Macron said during his trip to Moldova.
He didn’t mention Türkiye who could join this European club – a kind of second division league. Ankara is a long-time EU aspirant, sitting in NATO alongside many other European countries, but Macron has insisted the forum would only be for countries that share the EU’s “democratic values”.
In this contentious relationship between the two countries, a rhetorical style aimed at Erdoğan by Macron is increasing, further influencing relations.
Macron has set the bar high. He rivals Erdoğan over the ongoing war in Ukraine and is keen to have a cordial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Erdoğan positioned himself as a credible and trustworthy mediator in the Ukraine war in the early days of the conflict.
In July this year, Türkiye played a key role alongside UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when Russia and Ukraine sealed a grain deal in Istanbul to unblock Ukraine’s Black Sea exports after a Russian blockade raised fears of a global food crisis .
Erdoğan has repeatedly questioned Macron’s policies towards the Muslim community in France. Macron and his interior minister have recently taken bold decisions in this regard, in the name of the principles of French laicism.
In a joint press conference with his French counterpart in Ankara on September 5, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu highlighted the problems facing the Turkish and Muslim communities in France and the delays in issuing visas to Turkish citizens. The minister also stressed that the different opinions of the two countries should not be an obstacle to cooperation.
Other issues on which the Turkish and French leaders could not agree came to the fore. For example, the Armenian diaspora in France’s activism for genocide recognition, especially after Macron established a day of remembrance. The Kurdish issue is another example that Paris views through the lens of its “moral” support for minorities, while Ankara sees it as a serious issue of internal security and national territorial integrity.
However, there are common elements that enhance their relationship, such as their role as two strong regional stabilization powers in the Mediterranean. In their global fight against supranational terrorist groups, both countries also consider their national security requirements in connection with the Syrian civil war. When it comes to Libya, France seems lost due to the complex dynamics of the conflicts, leaving Paris panicked and ineffective. However, the two countries could serve as strong voices to end the Libyan civil war crisis. Finally, there is the thorny issue of migrants and how Ankara could play an important role in stopping the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe.
The failed coup attempt in Türkiye on July 15, 2016 had accelerated Turkey’s loss of confidence in France, Europeans and the West in general. Another bone of contention between Ankara and Paris is Türkiye’s growing role in Africa, a region that Paris still sees as a protected backyard. Ankara’s active foreign policy in Africa is consistent with rising anti-French sentiment in Africa’s Sahel and Maghreb countries like Algeria. Meanwhile, Paris has expressed concern over the recent strategic rapprochement between Algeria and Turkey.
A rapprochement that further pushes Ankara to place its chess pieces in the Mediterranean and the African continent. Another strategy Paris is leaning towards is the new MedEast axis: Greece-Cyprus and Egypt-Israel.
Paradoxically, this competition for power highlights the complementary roles of the two countries, which would act more effectively as partners than adversaries. The power of Turkish diplomacy is real. Ankara has proven itself in the international political arena through its humanitarian diplomatic paradigm and strong understanding of 21st century world affairs. These doctrines shape the entirety of Türkiye’s foreign policy principles and goals, both regionally and internationally.
Add to this the rapid growth and development of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), an influence needed in the hostile region that the geography and history of Türkiye imposes. In addition, the country’s developments in unmanned combat technology, such as the Bayraktar TB2, make all Turks proud, and many countries express a desire to acquire it. As a Le Monde headline put it: It sells like croissants (ça se vent comme des croissants).
From an economic point of view, Türkiye is fully integrated into the European space. Economic partner number one is Germany. Ankara is perfectly positioned to exploit EU members’ differences to assert its position against the shaky EU.
In summary, if one reflects on past relations, the two nations have generated competition and sometimes rivalry due to postmodern local politics and regional geopolitics. Relations between France and Turkey are as old as the international system of the Peace of Westphalia. Diplomats keep remembering the alliance formed in 1536 between the French King François I and the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. They demonstrate both their unconventional nature for the good of their nations and their people’s best interest in a turbulent disruption of world affairs.
Why doesn’t Macron read this letter from King François I to Sultan Suleiman to better understand Erdoğan’s leading role in the region? Or does he prefer Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egyptian history?
History is like real life sometimes, it prefers good stories.
*North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)