Turkey finally enters France’s strategic vision

Turkey finally enters France’s strategic vision

There was a time when Nicolas Sarkozy was the president of France, and members of his Cabinet would shy away from being seen in the same picture as the Turkish minister responsible for the European Union accession process. Rather than meeting in their office, they would suggest lunch in a fancy hotel during the Turkish minister’s visit to Paris.

This is what I recalled when I saw seven ministers accompanying French President François Hollande’s visit to Turkey.

France’s relations with three countries deteriorated purely because of Sarkozy’s personality, sources close to Hollande say: Japan, Mexico and Turkey.

However, Hollande’s visit to Turkey is not limited simply to repairing relations that deteriorated during the Sarkozy period; it is about placing those relations at a different level. I could suggest ambitiously that Turkey has finally entered France’s strategic vision, for it was absent even before Sarkozy’s presidency. Unfortunately, France missed or chose not to see and realize the huge transformation in Turkey from the early stages. Paris did not realize that Turkey provided huge economic opportunities, and that it could make use of the presence of a French cultural infrastructure which, although getting weaker every day, provided a precious asset to seize upon these opportunities. It preferred to turn a blind eye to the fact that the foreign policies of the two countries overlapped, rather than being in contention.

Today when you look to the rhetoric of French officials, Turkey is identified as a “major partner in the international scene, an important NATO ally with an essential role in a region marked by conflicts and crises.”

Turkey’s huge economic potential, which was already known to the French business community, has finally been grasped by Paris, and this appears to be one of the main motivations behind Hollande’s visit.

All of this is good news. But there are two subjects which might overshadow a fast improvement of relations. The first one is Turkey’s EU membership bid; the second is the commemoration of what Armenians consider to be a genocide, the mass killing of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans during World War I.

As for the first issue, we need to recall that in the past Sarkozy’s team used to tell the Turks to ignore French obstruction on the EU issue and continue “business as usual.” Ankara used to say it could not ignore an act that was against Turkish interests and act as if it did not exist. 

Currently, France has lifted its veto on one chapter, the regional policy chapter. Those talks started last year. But Sarkozy blocked talks on four other chapters, one of which is also blocked as a common decision of the EU. This leaves us with three chapters under French blockage. Hollande avoided this issue, despite being asked about it by a journalist. Instead, he talked about opening chapters on issues pertaining to the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the judiciary. But these issues are dealt with under chapters 23 and 14, which are blocked by Cyprus. 

My understanding is that Ankara will show some patience, as Hollande is facing elections for the European Parliament in March and has to deal with a lot of euroskeptics and Turkey-skeptics. Ankara is then counting on the fact that as there will be strong engagement, especially in the economic dimension, France will at some stage have to lift its vetoes on other chapters, most probably after the March elections. Otherwise, it would not be normal to expect Turkey to continue on with “business as usual.”

On the second issue, I hope the two capitals will start a healthy dialogue, and that some bridges will be established between Ankara and the Armenian diaspora in France. It is a pity that Hollande did not include a representative of the French Armenian community, like Charles Aznavour, in his delegation.