Between Sarkozy and Erdoğan

Between Sarkozy and Erdoğan

Europe’s financial crisis remains to be solved. The continent is moving towards a fiscal union, with mechanisms for short-term liquidity provision taking shape. But there is still the issue of reigniting the engines of growth in Europe’s economies. This is a herculean task, directly related to changing the social contract between Europe’s people and its governments. It is not about French and the others being lazy, but about dysfunctional laws on labor, retail and other outdated legislation on industry. Sarkozy was elected to change the course of France.

Remember how enthusiastic the French business community was when he was elected? Look where we are now: a global economic crisis, mounting debts of French banks and no prospect of sustainable growth in Europe. A couple of French banks were even downgraded recently, and the country is about to lose its AAA plus sovereign debt rating.

While all this is going on, France’s president is focused on a bill that would criminalize contesting the claims of Armenian Genocide. Note France already legally declared the atrocities of 1915 as genocide; they just thought they really needed another law banning the criticism of this previous one. This explains why Sarkozy was warning Turkey to accept the genocide claims by the year’s end when he was in Armenia this October; he planned to bring this up again around election time. So a new problem is looming between France and Turkey. Its origin, however, does not lie in Anatolia, but in France’s domestic politics.

France is due to hold a presidential election in 2012. Sarkozy is trailing behind his socialist rival Hollande in opinion polls and already has nothing to sell to the public. So he reached for his stash of political tricks, found the genocide bill and automatically got a boost of support from French Armenians. He knew of course, the first day of voting is April 22, 2012, just two days before the memorial day for Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives in the tragic events of 1915. This is classic provincial politics. Nicolas Sarkozy is acting like any other center-right populist politician. It is not about the Armenian identity, it is about winning the elections in 2012. Good for him.

A few years back, Turkey’s consul general in Paris was taken to court for text on the consulate website explaining Turkey’s version of 1915 atrocities. The court, however, did not pursue the matter, saying as there is no law against the denial of an historical event deemed as genocide by the French Parliament. Now they made the law. It makes “denial of legally defined genocide” punishable, both by prison terms and fines. Regardless of whether this is right or wrong, it will most certainly impair Turkish-French relations. The French press is currently not reporting on this, but they will surely react on Dec. 23, the day after the bill is due to pass against strong Turkish opposition. I can already feel the storm clouds gathering in Ankara. We all know how it will play out. Prime Minister Erdoğan will take the opportunity to thunder on about the “decaying powers of Europe” and their right-wing bigotry. It will be his comeback from the recent calm days following his serious surgery. Did I say that Mr. Sarkozy is the only center-right populist here? I must have forgotten about Mr. Erdoğan.

There are currently about a thousand French companies operating in Turkey and about three hundred Turkish companies in France. They will be the ones to suffer the center-right populism. Bad for globalization, good for provincial politics.