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Executive Summary: Escalating hostility between France and Turkey


Anastasia Papadopoulou, Flavien Baumgartner, Gün Kansu, Jessica Sumner

Week of: April 19, 2021

Dinner between Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Emmanuel Macron[1]

Tensions between France and Turkey have escalated to a dangerous point during the presidencies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron, while Turkish associations in France such as Millî Görüş, are trying to impose their version of Islam. These tensions reached a splintering point when the visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were re-published by Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. Macron’s continuing defense of the French principle of secularism (Laïcité) has been seen by Erdoğan as a policy aimed against Muslim citizens. This opposition does not apply only to ideological differentiation but also to perceived national interests, affecting both countries, the European Union (EU), the African continent, and the Middle East. Despite the up-to-date tensions around political Islam and the bilateral sanctions and warnings, an essential element in this dispute is the influence of predominantly Muslim countries in West Africa. Turkey's intention to establish itself as appealing to the Muslim world through its dissociation from more secular ideals and the protection of Muslims worldwide is very likely to result in more conflict and increased human rights violations.


President Macron has attempted to create a version of Islam that would respect France’s principles. However, this French version of Islam has been continually criticized by President Erdoğan, who continues to export his nationalist view of Islam to France and other states with an important Turkish diaspora such as Germany through the Millî Görüş association. Millî Görüş is a Turkish-European diaspora group considered to be the international branch of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has been at the forefront of this effort in recent years through the creation of schools and mosques which would advocate for the Turkish understanding of Islam. However, this group is considered to be acting against French principles as it refuses to sign a charter that every religious association in France is obligated to sign. This charter states that the association agrees to adhere to French principles, such as respecting secularism in the public space, upholding equality between men and women, respecting the intimate and private nature of religion. Due to Millî Görüş’ refusal to sign this charter, public subsidies for the building of the biggest mosque in France in Strasbourg have been withdrawn.

This incident, as well as the new legislation to battle ‘Islamist separatism’ in France, written in response to the beheading of French professor Samuel Paty, have contributed to Turkish resentment with President Erdoğan going as far as insulting President Macron and calling for Turkish citizens to boycott French products. In effect, the purpose of this boycott is to have detrimental economic impacts on France so that policies will be altered to accommodate more rigorous Islam practices in the French public space. So far, this boycott has had detrimental political effects for France on the world stage as international leaders have rallied the support of citizens in predominantly Muslim countries, as exemplified by the anti-French protests taking place in Pakistan. These anti-French protests echo a similar sentiment that has been reflected throughout the Middle East, and specifically Turkey, as it demonstrates the direct attack that predominantly Muslim countries feel as a result of new French laws which according to French lawmakers seeks to promote state secularism is also soon by many as promoting anti-Muslim rhetoric. The idea of a boycott has not received massive support from within France’s Muslim community as many of them agree with the government’s policies on secularism and reject the Turkish vision of Islam. This boycott is also not likely to have a tangible impact on the French economy as Turkey only represented 1.2% of French exports in 2019.[2]

France has supported Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean dispute with Turkey, advancing the former's military presence with frigates, fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and conducting joint naval exercises. France also led the EU’s initiative to impose sanctions against Turkey for its provocative stance. Turkey’s desire to have a more significant presence and increased influence on the Eastern Mediterranean is further reflected in its North Cyprus strategy, especially through recent events. There has been growing Islamist influence on North Cyprus from Turkey, which has sparked an uprising from Turkish Cypriot legal professionals and citizens who expressed their dissatisfaction regarding this disproportionate impact and interference. Quran courses have been taking place in Cyprus for a long time, under the control of religious entities tied to Turkey. This has eventually raised questions and has been taken to court after a lengthy evaluation process. According to the principle of secularism of the constitution, the Supreme Court has decided that only the Cyprus Ministry of Education is allowed to provide and supervise religious education. Following this development, President Erdoğan stated in his speech that ‘North Cyprus is unable to comprehend what secularism refers to. North Cyprus is not France.’[3]

By comparing and diminishing the secular attitude of North Cyprus to the laïcité principle of France, President Erdoğan is highly likely to trigger further conflict with France. This is because the idea of laïcité is being criticized in a manner that lacks professional diplomatic communication and could be considered as disrespecting the French way of life. By comparing and diminishing the secular attitude of North Cyprus to the Laïcité principle of France, President Erdoğan is highly likely to trigger further conflict with France. Additionally, by stating that North Cyprus has to re-evaluate this decision or face serious consequences, he overtly gives the message that he does not tolerate any effort to decrease the impact of religion and, thus, is not in favor of secularist policies. Through Erdoğan’s attempt to interfere with the legal decision taken by the Supreme Court of North Cyprus, societal polarization and Turkey-Cyprus tensions will likely continue to increase which in turn can negatively affect Turkish-Greek relations, further destabilizing their place in the international political arena. This outcome can delay the talks and agreements among the aforementioned countries regarding the recently discovered natural gas as well as peace negotiation efforts in divided Cyprus. Through these geopolitical disputes, Turkey’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean can be negatively affected.

Combined with the ongoing regional tensions in Libya, where Turkey and France maintain a different approach towards the crisis, and France’s alliance with the United Arab Emirates to combat political Islam, these tensions are highly likely to continue blocking Turkey's potential accession to the EU. These tensions are likely to drive Turkey further into strengthening relations with non-NATO members such as Russia and China and render collaboration even more challenging. If Turkey estranges itself from the European Union and shifts to Eastern partnerships, given that Erdogan will also continue to present himself with the role of the protector of Muslims worldwide but especially in the Middle East and the North African (MENA) region, it is very likely that Turkey’s already small respect for freedoms and human rights will diminish, limiting civil liberties such as freedom of speech, women’s rights, and gender equality.


[2] Les échanges commerciaux Franco-Turcs, Ministère de l’économie, des finances et de la relance, April 2021,1%2C56%25%20en%202020 (translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[3] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “KKTC Anayasa Mahkemesi Başkanı bu yanlıştan dönmelidir, aksi takdirde atacağımız adımlar farklı olacak”, Kıbrıs Postası, April 2021 (translated by Gün Kansu)



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