French behavior in recent months has been perplexing or, for the less diplomatically-inclined, downright aggravating. Whether it is dictating to Lebanon or pretending it still has colonial influence in Syria, the French government under Emmanuel Macron’s leadership exhibits the kind of post-colonial hubris one might ascribe to an empire in decline. Only, France as an empire died a long time ago. What does France want and do its aspirations line up with its capabilities?
Adnan R. Khan: For Turkey, France’s meddling in the eastern Mediterranean has been a thorn in its side. How do we explain French behavior?
Ilter Turan: There are a number of factors behind France’s policies. Some of them have roots; others are of more contemporary interest. More immediately, for example, the discovery of energy sources in the eastern Mediterranean has excited France. It wants its own companies to be active in exploiting those resources. It also wants to export goods and services to places where energy riches will flow.
Secondly, France sees itself as being on equal terms with Germany in the EU, which of course it isn’t; it is the weaker partner. So, it tries to compensate for this lesser position by trying to become the military arm of the EU while Germany remains the driving economic force. For historical reasons, Germany is extremely reluctant to develop an extensive military force and it is even more reluctant to use it in external engagements. Despite this interesting French vision, however, French history is not characterized by military achievements from the time of Napoleon through the First and Second World Wars and Indo-China. In each instance, France was dragged out of difficult positions by others, notably Britain and the U.S.
Adnan R. Khan: But this imperial perception persists. How much do you think the current moment, with the U.S. in retreat on the world stage, plays into this attitude?
Ilter Turan: I think France realizes that as long as the U.S. is involved in the defense of Europe and as long as Germany relies on American commitment to European defense, France’s role is bound to be secondary if not tertiary. So, the French approach – to say that NATO has outlived its usefulness, it’s suffered a brain death, etc. – is in fact a way of trying to get NATO out of Europe so that France can begin to play the role it envisions for itself.
But then your question also alludes to the third reason for why France sees itself as a great European power, and that is its imperial history. We may recall that Macron paid a visit to Lebanon shortly after the explosion there. Now within one month, he’s back there trying to tell the Lebanese what to do if they are to receive external assistance. France also has a military presence in the Sahel; some military presence in Syria; and it is trying to establish a base in Cyprus, etc. I think the intention is to reconstitute the glorious French past.
Adnan R. Khan: Similarly with Turkey – France appears to dictate rather than engage. This is obviously not a way to deal with your allies, is it?
Ilter Turan: One would expect that if France is an ally, it should try to work in a way that will reduce tensions between its two allies, Greece and Turkey, that are at loggerheads over the eastern Mediterranean. But rather than behaving like an ally, it has become a party to the debate. So now, in addition to a Turkish- Greek problem, NATO has a Turkish-French problem.
It’s very sad because, historically, Turkey and France have had a mutually beneficial relationship since the 15th century, but the way the Macron administration is behaving may well put the final nail in the coffin in that relationship.
Adnan R. Khan: The EU is also divided at the moment. Is it in a position to rein in France?
Ilter Turan: EU policy making is fragmented. There seems to be reluctance to take a unified position against Turkey. The majority prefers encouraging negotiations. The decisions that have come out of the consultations between foreign ministers suggest that members other than the France- Greece-Cyprus troika, do not want the EU to become entangled in a conflict with Turkey.
Adnan R. Khan: What do you think then would be the best approach for Turkey: Should it respond to France’s provocations directly or should it appeal to its other EU allies?
Ilter Turan: I think it is better to target other E.U. members rather than focusing on France, and impress on them that France is engaging in inappropriate behavior that is likely to lead to undesirable outcomes for the entire EU.