The issue of schools between Turkey and France

The issue of schools between Turkey and France

A delegation from Turkey was supposed to start an official visit on May 20 to see how foreign schools function in France with the aim to explore ways to open Turkish schools in the French territories.

There are already two French schools in Turkey, one in Istanbul and one in Ankara. It seems there are some legal loopholes especially in terms of the enrollment of Turkish students in these schools. So the officials of the two countries have started work to reach an agreement on the status of these schools. But as can be expected, the Turkish government is using this opportunity to open Turkish schools in France using the reciprocity principle.

This development was made public by French press which chose to say in headlines that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to open Turkish schools in France. Obviously, it is a deliberate choice to say Erdoğan instead of Turkey and the Turkish government as the Turkish president does not enjoy a high degree of popularity in European public opinion. In addition, he is perceived as a “leader of [the] Islamic world,” which renders an education issue in a secular country like France highly controversial.

In a European political environment poisoned by fears about immigration and movements of political Islam, France is unfortunately not immune to populists who are abusing the fears in the society. So the national education minister of France, Jean-Michel Blanquer, came out with a statement that would fuel fears and suspicions about Turkey’s “intentions.” If a Turkish delegation was scheduled to come to France to talk about the issue, it would be inconceivable that this visit is taking place without the consent of the minister. Despite his green light to the visit, he came out with a highly inflammatory statement:

“I think we have today too many unfriendly moves coming from Turkey, and we have a lot of concerns about what the Turkish authorities are doing vis-a-vis Turkish communities in France. Everyone knows that Turkey has turned its back to secularism that has characterized its history for decades. I am obviously very vigilant on this issue.”

Maybe it was an early warning sign to Ankara that the government should not see these schools as a way to monitor and manipulate Turkish communities in France.

Ankara has reacted to the statement by arguing that the minister was misinformed.

What further adds to the controversy is that the initiative came at a time when France is toying with the idea of an “Islam of France,” or “Islam in France.”

This is a highly sensitive issue especially in a secular country like France.

As a first step, France wants “local” imams to preach to its Muslim communities. Local meaning, for instance, a French citizen of Turkish origin born and educated in France. Under normal circumstances this should not create a problem between France and the relevant countries. There are already 150 imams sent by Turkey to France, which also wants to decrease the number of imams send by Algeria and Morocco.

Obviously, the French government wants to also curb the influence of these countries on their respective communities. The problem here is that any Turkish official sent to work in France is seen by French authorities not as one that would facilitate the harmony of Turks with the French society and one which would consolidate relations between the two countries but one that would serve to manipulate these communities for the interests of Turkey.

The negotiations on schools will take place against such a backdrop, and it will be certainly interesting to watch how the talks will evolve.