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May 15, 2012, Tuesday

New spring for Turkish-French relations?

For Turks, both those sitting in Ankara as well as ordinary citizens, the failure of Nicolas Sarkozy to secure a second term as French president was very much welcomed. Relations between Ankara and Paris nosedived during Sarkozy’s presidency as a result of his anti-Turkish populism, and more recently when a Sarkozy-backed draft Armenian genocide bill was passed by the lower and upper houses of the French Parliament. Therefore, the victory of Francois Hollande in the May 6 presidential elections should bring an end to the increasingly hostile rhetoric that was used by both sides hitherto and opens up a fresh page in relations between the two countries. This will be a win-win for both parties.

It would seem that there will be a good opportunity for a first meeting between the two countries at the forthcoming NATO Summit, which is due to take place in Chicago on May 19-20 and which Monsieur Hollande and Turkish President Abdullah Gül will both be participating in. This should hopefully be followed by a much longer and more in-depth session either in Ankara or Paris, when a real bilateral agenda of priorities can be laid out.

There is a strong belief in Turkey that Hollande has a good understanding of the importance of Turkey, both strategically and economically, to Europe. Sarkozy, of course, often underlined the importance of Turkey as a partner to the EU, particularly in foreign policy terms, yet he simply refused to accept that Turkey could at any time be part of the EU. However, while Sarkozy may have strengthened France’s anti-Turkish position, he did not give birth to it. However, Hollande, who has been overall rather quiet on his foreign policy aims, outlined his view in a 2011 book -- “Le Reve Francais” -- that negotiations between the EU and Turkey must be ‘fairly” pursued, until their conclusion. Moreover, he has criticized Sarkozy on several occasions over his opposition to Turkey’s accession, which has severely damaged bilateral ties between the two countries. Turkey’s EU Minister, Egemen Bağış, has recently said, “Ankara would like to see France become one of the champions of Turkish integration into the EU as it was under President Jacques Chirac.” Perhaps this may be going too far because I can never see France being a champion of Turkey’s membership, but one would hope that France will at least lift its veto from the five negotiating chapters it has blocked. However, this clearly also would not mean an open road for Ankara because, firstly, some of the chapters under French veto have also been blocked by Germany and Austria, and secondly, because of the Cyprus issue. Furthermore, Turkey’s eventual accession would still go to a referendum in France, meaning that one of the toughest battles still needs to be won -- changing the way many French people perceive Turkey.

Still, overall, there is good reason to be optimistic, and deeper cooperation between Paris and Ankara should hopefully help reactivate the EU’s transformational power on Turkey in the field of democratic reforms.

However, there still remains a question mark over one issue, which should not be underestimated -- namely the Armenian genocide. Ankara is waiting to see whether Hollande will follow through on his promise to revive the law criminalizing denial of the genocide, in spite of the verdict of the French Constitutional Court. While Monsieur Hollande has some very close ties with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D), it still seems quite unlikely that he would do this. First, because he seems to realize the importance of resetting relations with Turkey, and secondly, because the decision of the Constitutional Court destroying the Boyer Act was based on the principle of law, which means there would be very little opportunity for a second attempt. However, at the same time, it would seem rather improbable that Hollande is going to make an official statement saying that he is going to drop the matter; rather, he may keep the issue alive, but it will be way down at the bottom of his list of priorities. Indeed, recent speeches given by Monsieur Hollande on this issue (for example, in Paris and Marseille) were only published by an Armenian website, and not by the Socialist Party.

However, even if the decision is not challenged, with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide on the horizon, it would be naïve to believe this issue is simply going to disappear because it will not, and the Armenian diaspora in France will intensify pressure leading up to the commemorations.

Clearly Monsieur Hollande has many challenges ahead, not least the showdown with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the euro crisis, but one is cautiously optimistic that his entry into office will represent a new spring in Turkish-French relations.

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