Relations between Turkey and France sank to new lows this week as the countries’ heads of state engaged in the latest bout of vitriol that had all the colour and spectacle of a ringside sport.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been caught up in a series of verbal spats with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent months as diplomatic ties between them continue to fray. At the core of escalating animosities is a host of issues, including what Erdogan defines as French Islamophobia, energy disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and military support in Libya.
But on Friday, the acrimony reached febrile proportions as Erdogan called on the French to dump their leader at the ballot box in 2022 when Macron is expected to seek re-election.
“My wish is for France to get rid of the Macron trouble as soon as possible,” Erdogan said.
Macron fired back calling for “respect” during an interview with the news site Brut, saying Erdogan was curtailing the freedoms of the Turkish people.
Dr Ian Lesser, vice president and executive director at the German Marshall Fund, said Erdogan’s resorting to diplomatic barbs is nothing new as he has a “tendency to use his own rhetoric as part of his foreign policy”.
“The friction between France and Turkey is partly driven by personality,” Dr Lesser said. “In some ways, Erdogan takes this quite personally [as] he’s increasingly disenchanted with the West and Turkey’s place in it and he sees France and its leadership embodying all that he dislikes in Europe – culturally, politically, geopolitically.”
Erdogan’s latest invective against Macron comes ahead of a crucial EU summit on December 10 in which France is expected to lead the push for sanctions against Turkey for violating Greek waters to search for gas or breaching a UN arms embargo on Libya.
The strongman has long aspired to join the table of his European counterparts as a member of the EU and once seemed willing to do whatever the EU asked to get there. Turkey even agreed to be the gatekeeper in a crucial deal for the EU to stem the number of migrants entering Europe.
But the prize of EU membership may be losing its appeal.
Some critics see Erdogan’s verbal lashings against Macron, and the EU, as deliberate provocations, a way of burnishing his image among nationalistic Turks who see their president as a defender of Islamic values.
“There’s a tendency globally for leaders to personalise relationships – Trump and Putin were examples of this and Erdogan has been another,” Dr Lesser said.
“At a certain level personality matters … but combined with intense nationalism as seen in Turkey and elsewhere [the rhetoric has] taken on a particularly edgy character.”
Erdogan calls for French boycott
Erdogan inflamed tensions with Macron when he became the self-appointed voice of the Islamic world in the aftermath of terror attacks against France in October.
In a suburb of Paris, teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Islamist for showing students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a civics lesson on free speech. This was followed days later by a church attack in Nice in which a radicalised man armed with a large knife killed three people.
As France emerged from its collective grief, Macron urged the French to rally behind the Republic’s values of secularism, or laïcité, in defiance of attacks by radicalised elements. But his impassioned speech caused a furore when he said that Islam was “in crisis all over the world today”. Erdogan’s retort was swift and personal, saying Macron needed to get his mental health checked.
The Turkish leader fanned the flames of dissent by accusing France of being constitutionally Islamophobic and called on Muslims everywhere to boycott French goods. He sought solidarity, too, with fellow Muslims in France, who he said were “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II”.
While effigies of Macron burned in Pakistan, Egypt and Iran, elsewhere in the Arab world Erdogan’s rallying cry mostly fell flat.
French authorities denounced Erdogan’s words as Turkish “propaganda” against France and immediately recalled its ambassador to Turkey for talks.
Burnishing images at home
Aside from the role of personality in fuelling the current animosities between the two headstrong leaders, there is also a desire to boost support at home.
“In each other, Macron and Erdogan have found the ideal enemy,” Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post. “This spat works for both leaders in some strange fashion, both domestically and in terms of the influence they are trying to project abroad.”
Even with an incoming US Biden administration which will likely take a more active role in international affairs, including in regards to Europe, it may not be enough to encourage Erdogan to rein in his attacks against Macron.
“Erdogan is a skilful politician who has made the journey from liberal reformist to something tougher-minded and authoritarian,” Dr Lesser said. “There’s a very small price to pay inside Turkey for an outspoken stance against France and Europe. It’s a political plus for Erdogan because the mood of nationalism is widely shared – even by the opposition.”
Macron may also be somewhat driven by domestic motivations. His fierce defence of secularism following recent terror attacks and attempts to better integrate the practice of Islam into French culture may help his chances of re-election if he’s to face far-right leader Marine le Pen in 2022.
“When it comes to France’s larger relationship with the Muslim world, Turkey is going to be part of the calculus when it comes to French policy,” Dr Lesser said. “As the French president seeks to manage this relationship there has to be calculation on the French side of how far it’s willing to push Ankara.”