This article was published in Arab News on May 15, 2017.
French elections and Turkey
Emmanuel Macron’s election as France’s president has been received in Turkey with cautious relief, not because he became president but because Marine Le Pen did not. The latter’s xenophobic rhetoric, particularly against Muslims, during her election campaign worried Ankara because there are around 240,000 Turks and French citizens of ethnic Turkish origin in France.
Turkey’s relief was cautious because Macron’s statements during the election campaign give a clue as to his future attitude toward Turkey. He characterized it as an authoritarian state and frequently underlined Europe’s democratic values. Now that he has been elected president, he will probably use the same criteria in France’s relations with Turkey.
He tweeted after the April 16 referendum that Turkey is drifting toward authoritarianism, saying: “If I am elected, I will do everything to help Turkey’s democrats who continue their fight.” He may therefore support academic programs for fired Turkish academics to continue their research and work in France.
French historian Huguette Meunier-Chuvin said in a television interview: “Macron will not take unilateral action regarding Turkey within the EU, but together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he may take joint action in favor of those who are oppressed in Turkey.”
Another reason for Turkey’s interest in the French election is the EU accession process. Macron did not say anything about suspending the process, but he did not promise to revitalize it. He strongly criticized Merkel’s refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, and blamed Germany for acting without consulting EU member states. He said EU states should solve their problems by acting together, not by making deals with the rest of the world.
Like in almost every EU member state, in Macron’s close entourage there are supporters and opponents of Turkey’s EU accession. One of them, Sylvie Goulard, published a book explaining why Turkey should not be allowed to join. There are other Macron associates who favor maintaining Turkey’s ties with the West.
France’s policy toward Turkey and its accession to the EU will not be shaped only by the outcome of the presidential election, but also by the forthcoming legislative election.
These details have now become important because Turkey seems to have reconsidered the future of its ties with the EU. Many in Turkey were pleasantly surprised when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office issued on May 9 — Europe Day — a statement renewing Turkey’s interest in the EU.
“Our country, which has been a historical, geographical and cultural part of Europe for centuries, demands to continue the membership process to the EU — a strategic target for us — within the scope of mutual respect and equality and the understanding of a win-win” outcome, the statement read.
It relieved many Turks because Erdogan had challenged the EU with a defiant speech days earlier. He vowed to review all political and administrative ties with it, including a deal to curb illegal migration, saying after the April 16 referendum, “we could choose to do a second one on the (EU) accession talks, and we would abide by whatever our people would say there.”
France will hold legislative elections next month. Since Macron’s political movement En Marche! is not yet a fully structured political party, a coalition government composed of parties against Macron is still possible. This would lead to what is called in France “co-habitation,” meaning the president’s political party and that of the prime minister would not be the same. Such an outcome may negatively affect political stability.
So France’s policy toward Turkey and its accession to the EU will not be shaped only by the outcome of the presidential election, but also by the forthcoming legislative election. The bad news for Turkey will be if Le Pen emerges as the strongest party in the legislative election and forms a government. She will find plenty of excuses to translate into action her xenophobic approach toward the Islamic world, including Turkey.
In any case, the EU accession process will remain on the backburner for several years. As such, Turkey may turn the tide in its favor if it carries out structural reforms in political, economic and judicial fields, and improves its human rights record. If it achieves all these reforms, its EU accession may become a side issue.