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French President's Brief Visit to Turkey Reflects Strained Ties


French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, leaves with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, (File Photo)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, leaves with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, (File Photo)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is visiting Turkey Friday in his role as the current head of the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies. But the visit is expected to be less than easy. The French president strongly opposes the Turkey's bid to join the European Union, which has been a contributing factor in bringing the process to a virtual standstill.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Turkey comes as bilateral relations are at their worst in decades, primarily because of President Sarkozy's strong opposition to Turkey's EU bid. Even though Sarkozy is visiting Turkey in his position as head of the G20, the EU is expected to dominate his visit. Diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz says the fact that his visit will only last a few hours is an indication of how poor relations between the two countries are.

"Even that signifies to the Turks that he does not want to hang around too much here," said Idiz. "In case he is showered with EU issues, I know he is going to meet the president and prime minister and no doubt the Turkish side will want to reflect its displeasure. Really when we look at Sarkozy, we see a man who is prepared to burn bridges."

France is blocking five of 35 membership chapters that Turkey must complete to join the European Union, which observers say is the primary reason for the bilateral tensions. With the divided island of Cyprus further complicating the issue, Turkey's EU membership bid is on the verge of coming to a halt. A member of the European Parliament committee on Turkey, Richard Howitt, says the Turkish bid is at a critical point.

"We may run out of things to talk about and that the signs from the Turkish side, they are getting fatigued about the lack of progress of the talks, and just as much I hear those things in Brussels and national capitals in the European Union, I think we have to think about that," said Howitt.

Despite such concerns, observers say the French president has remained resolute in his opposition, arguing that Turkey is not a European country. Adding to Ankara's anger, observers say France, along with Germany, is set to veto the easing of visa requirements for Turks in EU talks next week. The Turkish minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bagis, attacked such opposition, but argues the European Union is losing as much as Turkey.

"The process continues to be hindered by the attitudes of several political leaders who lack common sense," he said. "We are bridge among civilizations, religions, continents, energy, trade and populations, and Turkey is strengthening all legs of these bridges simultaneously."

That is expected to be the message Sarkozy will hear when he meets with Turkey's political leadership. The French president is reportedly under pressure from his business community to repair relations. Turkey's economy is booming and Ankara has rapidly growing political and economic ties with Central Asia and the Middle East. Along with developing economic ties, the present turmoil in the Middle East is expected to be discussed during Sarkozy's visit. Diplomatic correspondent Idiz says this underscores the importance of Turkey to France.

"Circumstances may force Turkey and France to cooperate in some aspects in what is happening at the moment," he said. "And of course, it does want to be part of the lucrative market that Turkey represents at the moment. So the French are in a quandary more than Turkey is, in this sense."

Observers say with Turkey's strong economy and with its becoming an increasingly powerful regional player, public and political support for the EU in Turkey is now at best lukewarm. The message President Sarkozy is expected to hear is that France has far more to lose in the long term than Turkey over its ongoing opposition to Turkey's EU membership bid.

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