In the aftermath of the Sarkozy era, which Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has described as “a nightmare,” the shaping of policies between Ankara and Paris will be very significant.
France may be -- hopefully -- brought to a new way of thinking, recognizing that a different approach to Turkey will reinforce its power status in the EU, while Turkey with the President François Hollande administration may find a friendly counterpart benevolent enough to resolve some key problems between the two nations.
The most significant issue that has stood between the two capitals, pouring poison into relations, is the tragic fate of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was personally a driving force inflicting blows on the open wound, coldly calculating Turkey’s reaction, and insisting on a law in France criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide. He was doomed to fail, and by forcing the French constitution in the wrong direction, he did. The question remained: What did he care less about, the pain of the Armenians worldwide, freedom of speech, or the Turks’ desire to join the EU? Probably each one mattered less than the next.
The new era in France under Hollande is sending mixed signals, while Turkey continues to conduct a slow-motion search for ways to deal with that horrific part of its past. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared after meeting with Davutoğlu that there would be no attempts to enliven the “denial law” bid. However, other sources suggest that President Hollande is not in total agreement with this stance. He is in touch with some influential diaspora organizations in France, and has pledged that the issue will remain on France’s agenda.
Taken equally in relation to both countries, if Hollande’s stance is as reported, it spells trouble, notably for the simple reason that what Sarkozy tried to do only complicated things, pushing Turkey into defensive mode, as under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule it is in constant search mode. Lessons of that period are clear: If you mean well for Turkey, this is absolutely no way to show it.
Hollande is smart enough to understand this, but he also knows that many of his prominent comrades in the EU -- in both the Socialist and Green camps -- have remained rather firm that the positive aspects of the AKP revisiting the past far outweigh its negatives. In other words, it is not who will be punished for the denial of genocide that matters as much as how the Turkish state will be helped to come to terms with apology, regret or whatever the appropriate response may be in relation to the crimes committed by the military junta of the late Ottoman Empire. Awareness of this shows the difference between cynicism and friendly commitment.
The search mode of Ankara is undeniable. Davutoğlu reaffirmed it during his Paris visit. On his way back, he deeply explored the issue by sending signals to Paris. Here is what he said:
“How I wish that the protocols [between Turkey and Armenia] had been implemented! But … it was the balance in the Caucasus that prevented it. If Armenia had been able to withdraw from only one ‘region’ of the seven it occupies in Nagorno-Karabakh, the border would be open. I had persuaded [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev. Azerbaijan would also have opened its border then. I still regret it badly, because we were all on the verge of success. I had asked [Armenian President Serzh] Sarksyan: ‘Withdraw from only one and Yerevan will be the most beautiful city in the region. It is an advantage to be a neighbor to Turkey.’ He could not because of internal obstacles. But the issue is still on the table and conditions for implementation can rise again. We are searching; we know that this will lighten the burden of [the 100th anniversary of the killings of Armenians in] 2015.”
The foreign minister continued: “Second, we are searching for a new language of communication. We are establishing new, different relations with the diaspora. We have to sit down and talk. Our aim is to break the ice. Now there is and will be somebody who sits down before the Armenians and listens to them. I am not a foreign minister who keeps telling them that ‘no, nothing happened in 1915.’ Third, we are preparing for new messages regarding 2015. We are searching for a new language around the term ‘fair memory.’ I am also working on a new book on Ottoman history. I do not call it genocide, but say nothing when somebody else says it is.”
These are not brand new thoughts expressed by Davutoğlu. If anything, it is an example of the search mood, but would be meaningless if Sarkozy’s methodology were to continue in Paris.
The key lies in cooperation between “new” France and “new” Turkey. As has been demonstrated by Alain Juppe, French minister of foreign affairs from 2011 to 2012, both governments can facilitate explorative talks about a commission of independent historians with the aim of guiding Turkey to finding peace with the events of 1915. After all, France is the most trusted “protector power” of Armenia in Europe, and has profound relations with Turkey. A different mode would indeed help us all overcome nasty obstacles, and the decades-long festering of buried shame and denial.