François Hollande’s election prompted an editorial in almost every paper questioning what this meant for Franco-German relations. After all, Merkozy was the European Union’s dream couple. The answer being that pragmatism is likely to take precedence over Hollande’s socialist ideology, especially when it comes to finance. But, when it comes to Turkey and France the election of Hollande could change the tune France and the EU have been humming. Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister, Naci Koru, told reporters in that Turkey hopes problems it had with France will be gone with the new president . Nevertheless, he stressed that Turkey will wait and see, as it is difficult to say anything about future relations. But neither France nor Turkey can afford to wait and see: Turkey’s issues with France are as much their own problems as they are France’s.
Turkish and French relations have been fraught, particularly over the last 5 years. Sarkozy made his feelings regarding Turkey abundantly clear throughout his tenure as President, and they were not positive. The President verged between ignoring Turkey or fervently fighting against Turkey’s accession to the European Union by highlighting its domestic and historical failings. With socialist Hollande we may see an even larger magnifying glass held up to Turkey’s flaws. Now, even more than ever, if France is to have a relationship with Turkey the question of human rights, minority rights, freedom of expression and most importantly the thorny issue of Armenia will be even more pertinent.
Turkey’s accession to the EU has been frozen for the last three years. Sarkozy, as an integral part of the European system, played a significant role in halting Turkey’s accession. Turkey has only passed 1 of the 8 criteria, with France putting the kabosh on five of them. Despite the freeze there is still a movement towards Europe, despite the fact that Turkey has realised it does not need Europe as much as it once did. Nevertheless, Hollande’s election could really be the kick-start Turkey’s accession need but only if both Erdoğan and Hollande collaborate and begin to show gestures of goodwill.
During his time as President, Sarkozy visited Turkey once, in his role as chairman of the G20 rather than in the diplomatic interests of the two countries. In fact, the last French President to visit Turkey was François Mitterand. As with many things, it’s time for Hollande to pick up where the last socialist French President left off and visit. The move would be unprecedented and would signal a marked shift in France’s foreign policy. And more importantly it would be historic change and notable u-turn in France’s position regarding Turkey’s accession. Turkey has much to offer Europe and could in fact be the injection of hope Europe needs now. It’s blossoming economy, the second fastest growing economy in the world, and a young population could be the new beginning for which the EU is desperate.
Under the AKP, Turkey has made real progress towards realising its European dream, achieving candidacy in 2005. At the same time, Turkey was the first state membership candidacy to have the explicit mention of religion as a factor in the decision. Considered an original approach, it moves the consideration of candidacy from the political sphere and shifts the focus on to civil society. This changes Turkey’s constant political struggle towards Europeanization and instead requires a strengthening of relations amongst factions in its civil society. In this respect, Turkey has had varying success.
Turkey’s recent history has been marred by tensions with its minority populations, notably the Kurds. Meanwhile, there has been a positive move towards breaking down the militant laicism that defined the previous 70 years. Religion has been increasingly politicised, framed as in the public’s interest or rationalized as an assimilation of Western nations’ experiences of integrating religion and politics. However, freedom of speech has increasingly been curtailed whether via youtube bans or condemning the “despotic arrogance of intellectuals” and threatening to cut funding to public theatre. Turkey seeks to revive its accession process to the EU with a new “positive agenda”; attempts to come to terms with the cracks in Turkey’s civil society could bridge the gap between the two countries.
Hollande is unlikely to rapidly change course when it comes to Turkey. The best Turkey can hope for is progress with regards to the Union of the Mediterranean, using it as a token of support. Undeniably, it would be a small first step but this could spur a renewed interest in Turkey and France would be able to move to remedy its image in the Middle East. Both countries need to make an effort towards reconciliation, and neither can afford to wait.