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Declining French-Turkish Relations Could Have Regional Implications

  • Dorian Jones

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian applaud at the French Square, in Yerevan, Armenia, October 7, 2011.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian applaud at the French Square, in Yerevan, Armenia, October 7, 2011.

Relations between Turkey and France appear to have reached a new low following the French president's call on Ankara to recognize the mass killings of Armenians before and during World War I as genocide. Turkey has angrily dismissed the call as no more than cheap electioneering. The increasingly worsening bilateral relations could have wider regional implications.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Friday strongly rejected French President Nicolas Sarkozy's demand that Turkey face up to its past.

He said any state with a colonial history does not have the right to give Turkey a lesson on confronting its history. Davutoglu said it would be beneficial if France confronts its own past.

Ankara says the mass killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 were a result of civil war and unrest during World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But Armenia, along with much of the international community, says it was a genocide.

Sarkozy, during a visit to Armenia last week, indicated that legislation might be introduced to criminalize deniers of the genocide.

The French president also pressed another point of tension with Ankara by repeating his opposition to Turkey's bid to join the European Union, saying Turkey is not a European country. That opposition has contributed to a rapid deterioration in bilateral relations.

International relations expert Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University said, "Top decision-makers like Nicolas Sarkozy was spitting on this country. This is not the way you deal with a future partner."

The Turkish government has dismissed the latest comments by Sarkozy as cheap electioneering ahead of next year's French presidential elections. But former Turkish diplomat and visiting Carnegie Europe scholar Sinan Ulgen said the two leaders' personalities also are adding to the diplomatic polarization.

"Both politicians are more or less of the same ilk. They [are] both known to be quite driven personalities, with a very active agenda and therefore when they come together, perhaps this clash [of] personalities has really harmed the relationship," said Ulgen.

Ulgen said the bilateral tensions are now manifesting themselves in countries of the Arab Spring, further deepening the divide between France and Turkey.

"We've recently seen a rivalry between Turkey and France after the onset of the Arab Spring, in particular when Turkey wanted to increase its influence, but also economic contacts within the region. France seems to be threatened by this Turkish position, given that in some of these countries, France has [a] privileged position that is now being challenged by Turkey," said Ulgen.

Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing the Arab League in Cairo, made what was widely seen as a thinly veiled attack on France.

He said the Arab countries must be on guard against forces that will try to divide them. He stressed that Turkey stands ready to help all those in need and is not motivated by the region's wealth - a reference to Libya's energy riches.

Paris and Ankara are jockeying for influence in Tripoli. Last month, the French and Turkish leaders made separate visits to the Libyan capital on the same day. But former Turkish diplomat Ulgen said such competition extends across the region and can be beneficial. He admitted, however, there also are risks.

"This increased competition will certainly help the economic development of the region. But, of course, on the political side, the fact that Turkey and France don't see eye-to-eye would complicate things, especially if the international community as a whole will be asked to give their support for these countries for transition towards better democracy," said Ulgen. "There, cooperation between Turkey and [the] EU in general, but Turkey and France in particular, would have been certainly helpful - but that's not likely to happen."

With the region at a critical and extremely volatile point in history, observers warn the bilateral tensions, and especially the increasingly bitter and personal rivalry between the leaders of France and Turkey, could well become another destabilizing factor.