The rift between Turkey and France: Is it Armenians or Syrians?

The rift between Turkey and France: Is it Armenians or Syrians?

Turkey was infuriated by France when the French Parliament passed a bill criminalizing “denials of the 1915 events as genocide.” The bill may be highly controversial and the French move seems to be the product of a more political decision rather than a matter of humanistic principals. Yet, the Turkish reaction is also debatable since, first of all, it turned out to be a bitter personal attack on Nicolas Sarkozy, so much so that even the Jewishness of the president has been mentioned. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reminded him that it was the Ottomans who rescued many Jews from the Spanish Inquisition. Moreover, the French are reminded how Süleyman the Magnificent helped the French king at the time. Finally, Turkish politicians and journalists threatened France by recognizing France’s oppression in Algeria as genocide. It means that Turkey also behaves in accordance with political concerns on historical and humanistic issues and that if France were to turn a blind eye to the Armenian events, Turkey would be ready to do the same over what happened in Algeria and elsewhere.

The argument in terms of freedom of speech is even more open to debate. Those who claim that penalizing the denial of the “Armenian genocide” is a contradiction with the principle of free speech and violates the freedom of historical research forget the fact that Turkey penalizes talk of the Armenian genocide by the infamous article 301. Besides, the other limitations on freedom of speech concerning many other issues in Turkey could also be mentioned if we intended to genuinely discuss the issue of freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, the debates and political measures concerning historical “crimes against humanity” have always been more a matter of political interest rather than universal humanistic principles in all countries and at all times. France is no exception. That is why, I think, the latest French move should be evaluated more in terms of international politics rather than being seen as a whim of Sarkozy or even as a result of his domestic political concerns.

Only a month ago, we witnessed Turkey-France rapprochement over Syria. The French foreign minister visited Turkey in November and held a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Alain Juppe said France could cooperate with Turkey on Syria and emphasized the importance of imposing serious sanctions on Syria. Then, Juppe stated that France favored Turkey’s participation in the EU’s meeting on Syria, which was held Nov. 30. In the end, it was believed that Turkey was not invited to the EU meeting because of Cyprus’ veto. Later it was claimed that Cyprus had, in fact, withdrawn its veto, but that it was Egypt that did not want Turkey to participate (Milliyet, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, Dec. 15). Meanwhile, Turkey has also been excluded from the recent agreement brokered between the Arab League and Syria.

What happens and what is the meaning of all these developments, one wonders. Is it a disagreement over Syria among those actors which led to the recent developments? Leaving aside the changing directions in Turkey’s relations with Arab countries, why is it that France, which seemed to encourage Turkish engagement in Syria, has come to the point of confrontation with Turkey? Is it possible to think that Sarkozy dared to confront Turkey over the Armenian issue without considering possible Turkish-French cooperation over Syria? If not, we have to focus more on negotiations over Syria to be able to understand what is happening between Turkey and France rather than remembering the times of Süleyman the Magnificent.