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December 27, 2011, Tuesday

Turkey’s fury and France’s folly

The vote in France’s lower house of parliament making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 was genocide and penalizing those who deny it with a year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros has brought France’s relationship with Turkey to the end of the road. The law is due to be debated in the senate in the coming months.

Since 2001, when the French parliament passed a bill recognizing the 1915 killings as genocide, there have been several attempts to penalize denial of the genocide. In 2006, while a bill was passed by the lower house, it was blocked by the senate, with assistance from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. However, in 2007, the year of his election, Sarkozy promised to adopt the document by the end of his term. Moreover, with France’s economy in trouble, unemployment creeping up and his popularity in the doldrums at some 34 percent (the lowest of any president four months before an election), he is desperate to improve his ratings. With up to 1 million ethnic Armenian citizens, Sarkozy wants their vote. This is a very short-sighted policy which will have far-reaching consequences. Sarkozy proves again that he is no statesman. During his time in office I can think of no occasion when he has really shined, other than during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 when he brokered a peace deal. But even then he failed to get the Russians to fully implement it.

While Turkey and France have strong business links, relations between the two leaderships were already sour. Sarkozy has staunchly opposed Turkey joining the EU, even though his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, supported opening membership talks. Moreover, during Sarkozy’s visit to Armenia in October he accused Turkey of “brushing the genocide under the carpet.” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu responded by accusing Sarkozy of political opportunism, stating that France should confront its own history, particularly in North Africa.

Turkish attempts to stop this bill going to parliament were charged as “interference in France’s internal affairs” by Valerie Boyer, the bills author. While Foreign Minister Alain Juppé called on Turkey not to overreact, Turkey has responded in the strongest possible terms. Ankara has threatened military and political sanctions against France, and has cancelled all economic, political and military meetings within the NATO framework, while also cancelling permission for French military planes and ships to use Turkey’s ports or airfields. If the bill is adopted, France will lose access to sectors of the Turkish economy such as transport and arms, which could cost French business around $40-50 billion.

Turkey has also indicated that it will move to undermine France’s position in the Middle East, particularly Syria and Lebanon, where France has the strongest links, and in the South Caucasus. Ankara has complained about France’s role in the OSCE Minsk Group, which is tasked with mediating a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Ankara believes the French move on Turkey is an open display of biased behavior, with France showing that it is strongly backing the Armenians because of significant pressure from the Armenian diaspora. President Abdullah Gül has already asked for France’s immediate withdrawal from the Minsk group.

While much of the international community has been shocked over the French move, considering it to be counterproductive, there is also a feeling that Ankara’s “going in with all guns blazing” approach is also excessive, that Turkey is reacting too emotionally and not thinking through how its reaction may affect its own foreign policy and its relations with other international actors, particularly cooperation vis-à-vis the Middle East and North Africa region.

For the EU it brings another headache in its relations with Turkey, a key strategic ally and partner, at a time when relations are already difficult with the Cypriot presidency looming on the horizon. Meanwhile with tension in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean already high, having two NATO allies at loggerheads as well as further tensions in EU-NATO cooperation is far from desirable. Turkey is clearly aiming to prevent Paris increasing its role in those countries in which France believes it has a strong influence. Unfortunately this conflict will weaken the international communities’ position in this region and serves no useful purpose at all.

If the senate adopts the bill, it will damage relations permanently. It could also create difficulties for Turks visiting France, particularly academics and diplomats, as they may be asked the genocide question and could face charges. There is also fear it could lead to further legal actions, such as demands for reparations or territorial claims. With its tough response, Turkey wants to send the message to other countries not to copy the French, as the reaction will be severe. With the Arab Awakening still unfolding, requiring a unified front from Euro-Atlantic actors, Sarkozy’s timing could hardly have been worse.

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