The relationship between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan has degenerated in recent months from diplomatic disagreements to annoyance to outright insults.
They have clashed over the wars in Syria and Libya, a scramble for natural gas in the Mediterranean and now on Macron’s vow to uphold secular values, including the right to mock Islam and other religions, as part of a battle against extremism.
When Macron became president in 2017, ties between the former imperial powers were already tense. Paris never really bought into the plan, since stalled, to integrate Turkey into the European Union. And in 2001, Paris outraged Ankara when it officially recognised the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I as genocide.
Iraqis protest Macron comments outside French embassy https://t.co/POmaljpM9W pic.twitter.com/AP1ZLdG2lM
— Mark Juelich (@markjuelich) October 27, 2020
Since then, the bones of contention have multiplied, with the two countries often finding themselves on different sides in international conflicts. Erdogan warned Macron last month not to “mess with Turkey” after a number of critical statements by the French leader.
For Didier Billion, a Turkey specialist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, neither leader seems willing to hear out the other. “Clashing ideological visions now seem to prevail,” he recently wrote in an analysis.
Erdogan has warned Macron ‘not to mess with Turkey’. Meanwhile France is selling Greece warplanes, frigates and helicopters. A showdown on the East Mediterranean looks likely with Erdogan capable of military provocation.
— Alan Sked (@profsked) September 13, 2020
In October 2019, Ankara sparked the ire of Paris by taking a strip of land inside Syrian territory from Western-backed Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State group.
In Libya, Ankara has fought on the side of the Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj, recognised by the UN, against the forces of Khalifa Haftar, which Paris was long suspected of supporting. France now insists it is neutral in the conflict and has called for an end to foreign interference, but refuses to allow Turkey gain a foothold in Libya.
Read more: Erdogan tells Macron to undergo ‘mental checks’
The two nations also disagree on the Mediterranean, where Turkey is engaged in exploration and drilling operations in waters claimed by both Cyprus and Greece. Macron last month said Europe needed to be “clear and firm” with Erdogan’s government on the Mediterranean question, prompting Ankara to describe the French leader as “arrogant”.
More recently, the leaders exchanged words publicly over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey backs Azerbaijan against Armenia. Macron has accused Ankara of deploying Syrian jihadists in support of Azerbaijan, claims Turkey denies.
Disunity in NATO
France and Turkey are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but do not see eye-to-eye on its role either.
In November last year, Macron said that the lack of response by NATO to a unilateral Turkish operation in northern Syria showed that the alliance was experiencing “brain death”. Erdogan responded by suggesting that the French leader himself was “brain dead”.
Marcron and Erdogan are sniping before the meeting even starts. Erdogan responded to Macron’s criticism of his move to send troops into Syria by describing the French leader as… brain dead. And that’s before we get to Trump. https://t.co/9kpWOrJRxT @bpolitics by @RosMathieson
— Benjamin Harvey (@BenjaminHarvey) December 2, 2019
The spat escalated in June this year, when France said one of its ships had been subjected to radar targeting by Turkish frigates as it sought to inspect a cargo vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya. Ankara demanded an apology for Macron’s “false claims”.
While Turkey is officially a secular country, Erdogan has taken on the mantle of defender of Islam at a time when France is grappling with radicalisation and a wave of terror attacks. He reacted angrily when Macron announced a plan this month to protect France’s secular values against what he termed Islamist “separatism” and described Islam as a religion “in crisis”. Erdogan described the French leader’s statements as an “open provocation”.
More recently, Paris accused Turkey on Sunday of not having officially condemned the October 16 beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty for having shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed to pupils in a class discussion on free speech.
Read more: Op-ed: Turkish President Erdogan is laying the groundwork for leadership of Muslim world
Ankara insisted it had passed on condolences to France’s ambassador, but on Monday formally condemned “the monstrous murder”. Ali Bakeer, a Turkish political analyst based in Ankara, said Erdogan had no choice but to come out strong after Macron said Paty was killed “because Islamists want to take our future”.
“Hearing Macron’s statements, Erdogan had either to agree on what the French president said and thus look weak and helpless to his citizens and Muslims believing in his leadership, or he had to make a response. He chose to respond of course,” said Bakeer.
And respond he did. On Sunday, Erdogan advised Macron to have “mental checks” for treating “millions of members from different faith groups this way”. The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, called the comments “unacceptable” and urged Turkey “to cease this dangerous spiral of confrontation.”
Read more: A lesson for Macron: Freedom of expression is not absolute
For Pierre Razoux of the Mediterranean Foundation of Strategic Studies (FMES), Erdogan’s strategy is aimed at pushing France into a wrong move, and diverting attention from his own troubles at home and abroad. “Erdogan is trying to isolate France and divide the Europeans, so he is firing on all cylinders,” Razoux told AFP.
Iraqis protest Macron comments outside French embassy
Dozens protested Monday outside the French embassy in Baghdad after a pro-Iran faction called on Iraqis to slam French President Emmanuel Macron’s defence of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
A cleric at the rally, Aqil al-Kadhemi, demanded an “apology to all Muslims because the Prophet is a symbol of Islam and Muslims” and visual depictions of him are strictly forbidden in Islam.
“We are demonstrating to denounce and strongly disapprove” of Macron’s comments, Kadhemi told AFP at the protest that was heavily guarded by police. “We’re surprised that a country such as France, supposedly the bastion of culture and respect for others, continually disrespects more than 1.5 billion Muslims.”
Read more: Protests against France spread as Erdogan condemns Macron’s attack on Islam
Macron has drawn anger in parts of the Muslim world with his robust defence of the right to mock religion following the murder of a French school teacher who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Rabaa Allah, a pro-Iran faction formed in recent months which urged Iraqis to show up at the embassy, said “we are ready anywhere and anytime to answer back to those who tarnish our beliefs”.
Earlier this month, supporters of Hashed al-Shaabi — an Iraqi paramilitary network dominated by Iran-backed factions — burned down the main Kurdish party’s headquarters in Baghdad after criticism from a Kurdish ex-minister.
Some of the men in the small demonstration Monday burned a French flag and posters of Macron. Several families and children held up placards with red crosses plastered on Macron’s face and others of him bearing a pig’s face.
“We denounce Macron who had the audacity to dishonour our blessed Prophet,” said Aliaa al-Khafaji, a 40-year-old woman.
Other protesters called for a boycott of French products, like those already underway in supermarkets in Qatar and Kuwait and demanded by some in Jordan and Turkey. Several dozen protesters also rallied in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza for a second day in a row.
Read more: Will Arab countries heed Muslim boycott of French products?
A banner outside the French cultural institute there was torn down and replaced by images of Macron’s crossed-out face and a poster stating “Our Prophet will be victorious”.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk