France v. Turkey: A Dispute between NATO Allies Seen in Perspective

Last Thursday, the Turks withdrew their ambassador from Paris and suspended all military cooperation as well any further official visits. This was done in retaliation for a French bill tabled in the National Assembly declaring any denial of the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915/16 a criminal offence.

In 2001, France had already called the massacre genocide. (So does Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay, but not the U.S., the U.K. and Israel, which use different terminology.) President Sarkozy is expected to sign the bill before the end of the month. It still has to be approved by the constitutional court.

The Turkish media are furious and say that the bill was a breach of freedom of speech. They call it racist and fascist. One paper likened President Sarkozy to Satan. The official Turkish position is that the massacres, which they admit, involved considerably smaller numbers than the 1 to 1.5 million dead claimed in the West, and that, in any case, the massacres were an aspect of the war against Russia, since the Armenians were on the enemy’s side. This, they say, is a subject for historians to consider and should not affect current politics. (The Turks have applied for membership in the E.U.) Of course, they do not mention that historians know very well that the persecution of Armenians had begun in the nineteenth century.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s comments have been described as surprisingly restrained, though he did say that approval of the bill would take European values right back to mediaeval times and that his government would take retaliatory measures against France if President Sarkozy signed the bill.

France and Turkey are rivals in the race for influence in the Arab world. At stake are lucrative business contracts and a chance to mold a new generation of leaders in lands they once controlled.

Since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, both countries competed for domination. While the Ottoman empire was in decline, France acquired Algeria, Tunisia and, temporarily, Egypt and after WWI secured control over Syria and Lebanon. After 1918, Turkey became an inward-looking secular state with France as its model. In recent years, Turkey has experienced record-breaking economic growth and wishes to become the dominant power in the region.

However, Sarkozy made it clear in 2008 that he intended France to be at the helm of the Mediterranean world. So Turkey’s new activist foreign policy is shifting away from Europe, and Turkey is now cultivating ties with former Ottoman lands. Of thirty-three new Turkish diplomatic missions opened in the last decade, eighteen are in Muslim and African countries.

The rivalry between the former France and Ottoman empires is being replayed in post-imperial dress.

Sources: BBC Online, January 23, and “The Empire Strikes Back,” The New York Times, January 15

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