Can France and Turkey turn a new page in fraught ties?

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walk during a joint press conference on 5 January 2018. [Getty]
7 min read
15 June, 2021
Analysis: After a year of strained ties, France and Turkey are working to find common ground, but tensions will likely remain under the surface.

There has been much bad blood between France and Turkey over the past year, including geopolitical competition over Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and other areas of political strain.

However, in 2021, both countries have sought to ease their differences and find common ground, even though some tensions will likely remain under the surface.

Ahead of the 14 June NATO summit, French President Emmanuel Macron said that he wanted to meet Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and have talks, despite “profound differences of opinion.”

"We have deep disagreements, and we know it. We have had controversies sometimes, and we accept them. But no matter what the disagreements, we always have to talk," Macron was quoted by Le Monde as saying.

"Turkey's foreign policy successes forced France to reconsider its position"

After the two leaders spoke on the sidelines during Monday’s meeting in Brussels, Macron said he received assurances from Erdogan that foreign mercenaries in Libya should leave as soon as possible to aid the UN peace talks designed to facilitate elections later this year.

"We agreed to work on this withdrawal (of foreign mercenaries). It doesn't just depend on the two of us. But I can tell you President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible," Macron told reporters.

In another reassuring step, Macron tweeted on Monday that he hopes France and Turkey will “move forward” towards a respectful relationship.

Libya was a key source of division between both powers last year as Turkey intervened militarily to aid the former Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) from January 2020.

Libyan military graduates loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) take part in a parade marking their graduation, a result of a military training agreement with Turkey. [Getty]
Libyan military graduates loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) take part in a parade marking their graduation, a result of a military training agreement with Turkey. [Getty]

France had aided warlord Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, though later moved with Egypt to support Aguila Saleh, the parliamentary speaker of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya.

Turkey’s support against Haftar’s offensive thwarted France’s ambitions to secure clout in Libya.

Paris reacted negatively, as it withdrew from NATO’s naval operation in the Eastern Mediterranean in July 2020, highlighting its evident antagonism towards Turkey, and revealing how this rivalry threatened unity within NATO itself.

With both countries having altered their stances over Libya amid the UN-led political process, which saw the interim Government of National Unity form in March, their past differences could remain subdued, at least for now.

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“It seems that France realised that taking the opposite side of Turkey in every regional issue, backing every opponent of it and inciting against it, was not useful and led to no changes in Turkey’s foreign policy,” Said Elhaj, a political researcher specialising in Turkish affairs, told The New Arab.

“This anti-Turkey policy turned out to be a big failure, and Paris could not convince other European countries to impose sanctions on Ankara. Moreover, Turkey’s foreign policy successes forced France to reconsider its position,” he added.

On Turkey’s side, ahead of his 7 June visit to Paris, Ankara’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote in an op-ed for the French daily L’Opinion that “Turkey and France are two friendly and allied countries. And they will remain so”.

"Turkey felt it needed to adapt following Joe Biden's assumption of the US presidency in January"

This comes amid Turkey’s attempts to normalise relations not just with France, but with the European Union (EU) after Erdogan said in January that Ankara wants to “turn a new page in its relations with the EU” in 2021.

Elhaj argues that Turkey felt it needed to adapt following Joe Biden’s assumption of the US presidency in January.

“It had many incentives to rethink its foreign policy and adopt a milder one with positive speech. First of all, Biden’s administration showed many signs of unpleasant relations with Erdogan, which forced the latter to try to ease tensions with many regional powers, namely Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Secondly, Turkey was engaged in many conflicts in 2020, and wanted to turn its military and geopolitical achievements into political gains.”

He added that Ankara is trying its best to avoid EU sanctions and strengthen trade ties with the bloc.

A boy holds a poster showing the portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against him on 25 October 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. [Getty]
A boy holds a poster showing the portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against him on 25 October 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. [Getty]

“Some domestic developments like the economic realities, the coronavirus pandemic and upcoming elections, expected to cause difficulties for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seem to have contributed to this mild shift in Turkey’s foreign policy."

Past divisions

Some ideological differences have also underpinned French and Turkish tensions, particularly with Paris’ attempts to push a pro-secular position, which Turkey has condemned as having anti-Islamic tones.

Moreover, the issue of Turkey’s possible EU ascension was another traditional flashpoint.

After becoming president in 2017, Macron reinforced these ill feelings towards Turkey, saying in 2018 that there was "no chance" of Turkey ever becoming an EU member state.

France was long a leading opponent of Turkey’s potential EU membership, with former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing saying in 2002 that "Turkey is not a European country" and that it is part of "another culture, another way of life."

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Furthermore, France’s controversial measures to crack down on what it called “Islamic separatism” became a further source of tensions, including passing a bill in February granting authorities greater oversight over French mosques, schools, and even sports clubs to monitor “radical Islam.”

Erdogan sharply condemned such plans last October, saying Macron needs “treatment on a mental level” while calling on Turks to boycott French goods and urging world leaders to act “if there is oppression against Muslims in France”.

Following their Monday meeting, Macron added that “clarification” was needed in response to Erdogan’s harsh criticisms of Paris’ position on Islam and secularism. And as the Turkish premier has yet to change his view, this could still be a quiet source of tension.  

Yet geopolitical differences were the main driving factor behind last year’s unprecedented souring of ties. While their relations deteriorated over the Libyan conflict, tensions also drifted towards other issues, including Syria, Lebanon, and North and West Africa.

A key contentious issue was the Eastern Mediterranean, as Turkey faced tensions with Greece and Cyprus regarding the delimitation of maritime zones, with Athens and Nicosia accusing Ankara of conducting unauthorised exploration and drilling in the disputed waters. 

"Ankara and Paris will likely struggle to end their disputes and cooperate anytime soon, and their rivalry, competition, and conflicting interests will still linger"

With both countries calling for EU sanctions on Turkey, France has sided with Greece and Cyprus, often condemning Ankara’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean as it sought to secure its own clout and energy interests there and in Libya. 

Ongoing 'under the table' tensions

The wider region has seen several positive developments in terms of mending antagonistic ties since Biden became US president.

Turkey has sought to reconcile with Egypt and EU countries, while there have been signs of a tentative rapprochement with the UAE, two formerly fierce regional rivals.

However, as with many of these changes, such as the resolution to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis in January, tensions have for the most part merely moved under the table, rather than being fully resolved.

That could certainly be the case between Paris and Ankara, with further divisions expected.

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After all, despite these positive overtures, Paris in March accused Ankara of trying to meddle in France’s upcoming Presidential elections in 2022, indicating Macron sought to blame Turkey as an external “foe” as he faces a challenge to retain the presidency.  

Ankara and Paris will likely struggle to end their disputes and cooperate anytime soon, according to Elhaj, and their rivalry, competition, and conflicting interests will still linger.

He added that future competition may occur over Libya, despite Macron and Erdogan’s conversation at the NATO summit.

“Libya is the region most probable to witness the impact of this, especially right before and long after the coming elections,” he said.

“And of course, there is no sign of France’s reconsidering or lowering its support to Greece and incitement against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it will keep its veto on Turkey’s EU membership”.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey