France’s geopolitical problem with Turkey

President Macron, flanked by Republican Guards, makes his entrance at the Palace of Versailles to deliver his state-of-the-nation address to MPs and senators (CHARLES PLATIAU/POOL).

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Comments by French President Emmanual Macron early in October triggered a fierce war of words between himself and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that weeks on, still has the two leaders arguing back and forth. Macron claimed that the religion of Islam is in crisis, a remark that offended Muslims around the world, including President Erdogan, who styles himself as a defender of Islamic values and causes, both in Turkey, and in the wider Muslim world. Erdogan later alleged that Macron is suffering from mental issues, resulting in France recalling its ambassador to Turkey.

In the backdrop of the two leaders’ bickering, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo re-published an insulting cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad that was originally released five years ago. Back in 2015, the cartoon led to a series of violent attacks in France, including one that targeted the Charlie Hebdo offices. The cartoon led to similar consequences again, as a school teacher was beheaded for showing the cartoon to his class in the name of promoting freedom of speech. This time, however, in reaction to the teacher’s murder, the French government officially endorsed the cartoon as a symbol of French values, even going as far as projecting it on state buildings.

Macron’s endorsement of the cartoon escalated what was already a tense situation between France and the Muslim world. A very small minority of people who identify as Muslims have accepted physical violence to be a legitimate way of expressing their dismay at the cartoons, and this was again seen in a random stabbing attack that took place in Nice, leaving three people dead. And while the vast majority of Muslims do not condone such attacks, it is fair to say that even the most peace-loving Muslims were angered by Macron’s open support for Charlie Hebdo. As is the case when any head of state endorses any behaviour that stigmatises a certain segment of society, certain violent individuals can interpret the endorsement as a green light to take matters into their own hands. One incident in October that didn’t make the headlines was the stabbing of two Muslim women in a racially-motivated attack near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.


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As ill-advised as Macron’s approach to the downward spiral of events unfolding in his country may be, one must understand that the French president is caught in a dilemma between appeasing his society at home and satisfying France’s geopolitical ambitions abroad. On the one hand, the French president is increasingly desperate to build bridges with Muslim societies in North Africa and the Middle East to restore France’s depleted soft power in those regions. On the other hand, Macron must address the domestic problem surrounding the growing French Muslim minority and general attitudes towards them from France’s secular majority.

At present, France is home to the largest population of Muslims in Europe. As much as 5 percent of people in France are Muslims, equating to almost 3.5 million. Most of them originate from countries in Africa that were once French colonies, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali and Senegal. Islam is also spreading among non-Muslims in France, with as many as 200,000 people believed to have converted to the faith. By 2050, it is estimated that over 12 percent of people in France will be Muslims. Provided that French Muslims can maintain their sense of unity through religion, by 2050 they will have enough numbers to become real movers and shakers in France, the birthplace of secularism in Europe. Many French consider this prospect to be a threat to their way of life and very identity as a European country.

Recent voting trends in France have also been shifting further and further to the right since the failure of former President Francois Hollande’s left-wing government. Macron, himself a centrist, had to shrug off a tough challenge from his far-right rival Marine Le Pen when being elected president in 2017. Since then, general attitudes and feelings in France have continued to move to the right. This is of course something Macron has to take note of for the next time his people go to the polls in 2022. Therefore, his shift to the right comes as no surprise.

Global diplomacy in tatters

As strategic as Macron’s move to the right may be for his domestic prospects, it is already having ramifications abroad. Muslims all over the world have been calling for a boycott of French products amid mass protests condemning Macron. The burning of the French flag has become a common sight even in Muslim-majority countries that typically have good bilateral relations with France, such as Egypt. This public outburst towards the French government has made it difficult for any Muslim leader who wishes to maintain a positive standing in their own country to justify to their people the keeping of good diplomatic ties with France, especially considering that Macron’s endorsement of Charlie Hebdo has upset Muslims on all sides of the political spectrum.

This situation has erupted at a time when France needs to maintain good ties with Muslim countries more than ever. Once the imperial master of much of northwest Africa, France today sees its influence in its former colonial backyard at its lowest since the period of de-colonisation. Its soft power has waned significantly in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where it is slowly giving way to the growing influence of rival Muslim powers Turkey and Saudi Arabia. France also no longer has much to boast about in its former Middle Eastern colonies of Syria and Lebanon, having been made irrelevant by Russia and Iran.

Iraqi protesters burn posters and the French flag during a demonstration against French President Emmanuel Macron in front of the French embassy in Baghdad on October 26, 2020 (AFP).

This explains why France has been so eager to take on Turkey, which in its own expansionist mission in the Eastern Mediterranean has been creeping into former French strongholds. Last year, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation deal with Libya’s UN-recognised government, which also saw Turkish troops sent to Tripoli to defend the city from attacks by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar. The Turkish deployment was seen by Paris as a danger to its drive to regain its foothold in North Africa. France seized the opportunity to send a warship to the region by putting on a display of defending Greek maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean against Turkey. In reality, France was actually attempting to create a stand-off situation between itself and Turkey in a bid to rally EU support behind it and deal a blow to Turkey’s expansion project. But as much as France and Greece tried to play to Turcophobic sentiments in Europe to push for sanctions on Turkey, they proved to lack the combined political leverage to unite EU opinion against the Turks.


It could be argued that Macron misjudged the EU’s resolve against Turkey, perhaps even overestimating the EU’s bandwidth as a political bloc. Macron has made no secret of his stance as a Europeanist. He has long called for the formation of a joint European army with other EU members. The problem is that most EU countries are already part of the NATO military bloc, which is spearheaded by the United States. After the US, Turkey boasts of the second largest army in the bloc. The bloc has largely been responsible for security in Europe since the end of World War II, and was the single biggest obstacle preventing the Soviet Union overrunning all of Europe during the Cold War. To this day, it is the main force defending Europe from a multitude of threats, acting as a deterrence mainly against Russian expansionism and maintaining Western hegemony in the continent.

Another function of NATO is that it safeguards the transatlantic trade route, ensuring Western dominance in international trade. Likewise, it helps keep Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean at bay, thus preventing the Russians from gaining significant leverage over the West by taking control of the Suez Canal chokepoint, which is absolutely crucial for the transportation of oil from the Arab Gulf to the Atlantic. What Macron fails to realise is that like it or not, Turkey is the country largely responsible for fulfilling this NATO objective by maintaining the status quo in that part of the Mediterranean.

Yes, Turkey may not behave the way its Western partners would like it to behave, but when its national interests have been respected, Turkey has largely been a loyal member of the NATO bloc. In spite of whatever reservations others may have about Turkey being a NATO member, its unilaterally undertaken military operations beyond its borders have always been minimalist offensives designed to defend its territorial integrity through the setting up of buffer zones and military outposts, even if that’s not necessarily how it’s interpreted on the ground.

For instance, despite possessing the military strength to take over all of Cyprus in 1974 when the island was seized by the Greek junta, Turkey only took control of the northern third of the island, just about enough to set up a semi-dependent entity that would secure the safe passage of its ships through the Bay of Iskenderun to the open seas. Likewise in Syria, Turkish troops only advanced as far as they needed to in order to prevent the hostile PKK-linked YPG militant group from creating a corridor along its borders. Even the Turkish maritime deal with Libya only came after Greece took a maximalist, unilateral approach when determining its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Aegean, which would have completely locked Turkey out of the gas bonanza taking place south of its shores. In other words, as much as Turkey is portrayed as an aggressor, most of its cross-border offensives come from a place of defence, often in reaction to provocations that threaten its sovereignty.

Turkish and American forces conduct joint ground patrols in the so-called “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey in September 2019.

From a NATO perspective, tensions between Turkey and other NATO allies are not helpful. Quite frankly, as things stand, Turkey is the only country in the Eastern Mediterranean that first of all has the military strength to hold the frontline against Russian expansionism, and secondly has the shared interest with the West in holding that line. Even Washington’s closest ally in the region, Israel, cannot be trusted to such an extent due to pro-Russian elements within its society. Only Egypt’s military strength equals that of Turkey’s in the region, but owing to the fact that Egypt doesn’t face the same Russian threat to its territory that Turkey does, Cairo does not have the same incentive to cooperate with NATO. That’s precisely why Turkey is a NATO member and Egypt is not. So when other NATO allies, that are not as indispensable to NATO as Turkey is, go about agitating the Turks, their complaints about Turkey’s counter-moves are really of no importance to the bloc’s leadership. If anything, NATO sees the behaviour of France and Greece as dangerous for the bloc’s unity, and considers any actions designed to alienate Turkey to be an opportunity presented to the Russians to bolster their influence in the region.

Macron can kick and scream as much as he likes, but as he has found out through his failure to unite the EU against Turkey, so long as NATO plays the role of Europe’s personal bodyguard, his temper tantrums will not be enough to help France create the military front it needs to reassert itself as a global player.

Macron the revolutionary

It seems, however, that Macron is too proud to surrender France’s destiny to an American-led alliance in which his nation can never truly fulfill its full geopolitical potential. He is determined to help France break free of its American chains and make it the leading nation of a free Europe. He seeks to transform the EU from being a mere unofficial project of NATO designed to help former communist Eastern Bloc states integrate with the West, into a fully-functional and independent entity that will help France regain its former glory. Basically, his goal to bring the united Europe, that currently only exists in his mind, into reality, is an attempt to hijack the EU and turn it into a vehicle of French neo-colonialism.

Macron’s pivot to the right therefore can be seen as being his resorting to populism to establish himself as the natural leader of Europe and defender of so called European values. By targeting Islam, Macron is tapping into the most base instincts of European society and addressing its historic traumas. Of course he is not the first EU leader to do this. The leaders of Hungary, Czechia, Poland and even Italy are already way ahead of him. But none of those countries stand a chance in changing the direction of the EU entirely, whereas France, the bloc’s most powerful member state, does. Macron is seemingly attempting to rally the growing number of far-right eurosceptics in the bloc and give them a brand of nationalism they can digest, with his added ingredient of pan-Europeanism.

Yet in making this move, Macron has set himself against the very people he needs to work with to eventually realise his dream of re-establishing French influence in its former colonies — the Muslims. Just when a beacon of hope began to appear for France in Libya and Lebanon, two places where France is playing, or attempting to play, a key role in the formation of national unity governments, Macron has suddenly made it very hard for local leaders to show any kind of affiliation with the French.

Advantage Erdogan

Even if Macron succeeds in uniting Europe by riding the current wave of Islamophobia, he would find himself facing a united Muslim front that is resistant to any kind of French expansion. Not only that, but he would likely find his Turkish rival Erdogan spearheading that resistance, because whatever populist tactics Macron is just now starting to use to unite European society, Erdogan has already been using those same tactics for almost two decades in the Muslim world.

Being so outspoken against Macron’s endorsement of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons has done wonders for Erdogan in promoting himself as a true Muslim leader. In the Muslim world, Erdogan’s confidence and charisma alone have been enough to inspire a shift in thinking towards the Turks, and in some instances, created a longing for the return of the Ottoman Empire. He may be vilified in Europe, but he holds great sway among the Sunni Muslim majority of the MENA region. Turkish influence was already replacing French influence in the Middle East and North Africa, and this latest spat between Macron and Erdogan will almost certainly be the last nail in the coffin for France in those countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a large crowd in Istanbul in August 2016.

However, as much as NATO remains dormant when it comes to dealing with Turkey at the moment, it almost certainly won’t allow Turkey to inherit the lands of the former French Empire. Turkey’s job is to do what it needs to do to keep Russia out of the Eastern Mediterranean. As far as NATO is concerned, Turkey has no business being involved in areas outside of its immediate region. But the key to solving this problem is not to discipline Turkey at the risk of pushing it into an alliance with the Russians. Rather, NATO needs to exercise its influence in Europe to end counterproductive provocations against the Turks, which would in turn allow Turkey to rest its mind from thinking too much about the world beyond its borders.

The right-wing Europeanism currently being touted by Macron is proving to be too troublesome for NATO’s objectives in Europe. With Europe’s experimentation with liberalism pretty much at its end, the time may be nigh for right-wing eurosceptics to finally take centre stage in the EU, ultimately leading to the break up of the EU itself. Instead, NATO may prefer to see the emergence of regional blocs, all aligned to the NATO agenda, but none strong enough to ever break loose and become a rival to NATO. As for Turkey, so long as it remains a key player in holding the Russians back, and in doing so doesn’t become a bigger threat than Russia to Western hegemony, it can be reassured that have-a-go-heroes like Macron will be here today, gone tomorrow. NATO will see to that.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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