Turkey and France have had a somewhat adversarial relationship in recent history, and even more so in recent years. In general, they have enjoyed relatively good relations on the economic and trade fronts, even though France has always been opposed to Turkey’s accession to the EU. And yet, the negotiations for full membership came to a deadlock as of 2016.
Indeed, geostrategic priorities and clashes of interests in areas such as Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh have hindered any notable progress in collaboration between the NATO allies. These growing divergences brought bilateral relations to the breaking point in 2020, in part due to the acrimonious relationship between Erdogan and Macron. Following a tumultuous 2020, de-escalatory initiatives have been taken under the framework of a “positive agenda” between Turkey and the EU since 2021, easing tensions in French-Turkish relations.
But still the “verbal cease-fire” that France’s foreign minister called for last June seems difficult to enact in the face of an entrenched political rivalry. On July 19, Macron’s Paris meeting with the members of YPG-affiliated Syrian Democratic Council, which Turkey deems a terrorist entity under the PKK, has shattered the short-lived verbal truce. Apparently, the underlying reason for the visit was to discuss the group’s pursuit for legitimacy with the intention empowering its political and military status in the region. Ankara immediately condemned the move, which it considers part of France’s persistent anti-Turkey stance.
Turkey’s increasing leverage across its wider neighborhood, in particular within the last five years, has negatively affected France’s supremacy and foreign policy activities in the MENA region, where it has built some geopolitical muscle through past strategic linkages. The meeting thus reveals that France will seek to display a more effective foreign policy in the Syrian battlefield following the U.S. partial departure from the Middle East. Basically, Paris aspires to hold Syria in the French and Western spheres of influence. Its increasing support of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), both financially and diplomatically, could thus be considered a dual purpose motivation.
First, it views the group as a key local ally to fight against and prevent the resurgence of Daesh. Closely linked to this, through its liaison with the SDF, Paris wants to make sure that French nationals, who were former Daesh foreign fighters in Syria, not be released from SDF-controlled jails, despite the fact that Biden administration persistently calls on France to bring the jihadists back, prosecute them at home and deradicalize them.
Second, France seeks to counterbalance a rising and militarily assertive Turkey both in northern Syria and the broader Middle East region. It thus regards the terror group as an asset in putting pressure on Turkey beyond its borders. By strengthening its relations with PYD/YPG, France hopes to weaken Turkey’s political foothold not only in Syria, but also in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, where almost the whole region has turned into a geopolitical playground for interlinked crises.
Certainly, Turkey’s vulnerability to regional pressures, which involves dealing with terrorist and other radical groups as well as massive refugee flows, have had direct and painful implications for its security landscape and economic viability. But this vulnerability has, at the same time, made it necessary for Turkey to reorient its regional politics and so legitimize its foreign policy maneuvers in defending its core interests, even militarily, within the current security architecture.
GROWING GEOPOLITICAL RIFT
Within an unstable regional and global setting, the political and economic power of Europe have been deeply shaken by the Eurozone crisis, Brexit, and the global pandemic. In this context, France makes efforts to seize the leadership of the Union from Germany, establish a European army independent of NATO, and consolidate its power in the Mediterranean. It also seeks to expand European power for hydrocarbons in order to reduce heavy dependence from Russian energy supplies, and in parallel, weaken Turkey’s hand in the eastern Mediterranean. The tensions has therefore run so high between the two actors during 2020 to the extent that the Union has offset Turkey by excluding it from regional initiatives, such as “the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum” and “EastMed Pipeline”.
Ankara has responded through soft and hard power instruments in a joined up approach with several seismic exploration and drilling activities in the Mediterranean Sea. The situation has been further complicated with France’s military deployment to the eastern Mediterranean region as well as its joint military exercises and selling defense products to Greece. Paris has even urged the EU to threaten Turkey with sanctions to limit its ability and activities in the region while Turkey is determined not to compromise on its interests or make any concessions over its claims. Looking ahead, neither side wants to give up its own agenda for influence and presence across the wider region. The stage in the Middle East is warming up based on certain crises and geopolitical competition which might also involve military confrontation besides diplomatic rows.