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Turkish Leader Seeks French Support for Ankara's EU Bid - 2004-07-19

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Paris seeking to overcome French reservations about his country's bid to join the European Union. Most other EU countries have pledged support for beginning entry talks with Turkey next year, but France has sent mixed signals about its readiness to approve such a move.

Mr. Erdogan's government has done more than any previous Turkish administration to satisfy EU membership criteria. It has abolished the death penalty, made torture a crime and granted greater cultural rights to the country's Kurdish minority, among other sweeping democratic reforms. The prime minister has also begun to curb the power of his country's generals, reversed Ankara's hard line on Cyprus and, not least, pulled the economy out of crisis.

French President Jacques Chirac, who will see Mr. Erdogan on Tuesday, says he wants to wait until the European Commission, the EU's executive body, issues a progress report in October on implementation of Turkey's reforms before he decides what position France will take at a December EU summit. That meeting will discuss whether or not the 25-nation bloc should begin membership negotiations with Turkey.

Mr. Chirac has praised Turkey's reforms, but says that more are needed. And even if Ankara gets its cherished goal of a starting date for entry talks, the French leader has said that it will take 10 to 15 years of negotiations before Turkey can actually join the union.

EU-watchers say French policymakers are concerned that the union still has to absorb the 10 new, mostly former communist states that it admitted earlier this year before it can even consider bringing in a populous, poor, overwhelmingly Muslim country like Turkey. Cultural differences and Turkey's proximity to the volatile Middle East are also cited by French conservatives as reasons for opposing Turkish membership. In fact, Mr. Chirac's own right-of-center party has come out against Turkish accession, although the opposition socialists are mostly backing Ankara's bid.

Mr. Erdogan will not only see Mr. Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin during his three-day visit. He has also scheduled meetings with French businessmen, the two main political parties and representatives of France's sizable Turkish community. The Turkish leader says he will emphasize how his government has adapted its laws to those of the EU, and explain that the vast majority of Turks see EU membership as a national project to modernize and westernize their country.