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Jan 11 2018

Turkish university needs more than words from France’s Macron, academics say

Academics, alumni and students of Turkey’s prestigious Galatasaray University said it was not enough for France to speak out against rights abuses in their country after French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue of staff members detained on terrorism charges for signing a petition calling for a peaceful end to the conflict with Kurdish separatists.

Turkish prosecutors have accused 1,148 academics from across Turkey of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation” for signing a petition in January 2016 calling for a negotiated end to more than 30 years of fighting with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and accusing the government of  “deliberate and planned massacre and deportation”

The trials of 148 of them are underway and they could face up to seven-and-a-half years in jail if found guilty. More than 500 of the academics have also lost their jobs.

Macron said he brought up the issue of those accused from Galatasaray University, founded in 1992 as the higher education branch of a famous French-language school in Istanbul, during a meeting with visiting Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan last week.

"I have raised the case of Galatasaray University, which emerged from a Franco-Turkish accord in 1992, where academics and students are under (legal) proceedings," Macron told a joint news conference with Erdoğan in Paris.

Turkey has experienced a widespread crackdown under a state of emergency introduced in the aftermath of a failed July 2016 coup. More than 5,000 academics have been removed from their posts out of tens of thousands sacked from state jobs by government decree.

Sociologist Buket Türkmen now works at the Bordeaux University in France, after ending her long career at Galatasaray University last year.
Sociologist Buket Türkmen now works at the Bordeaux University in France, after ending her long career at Galatasaray University last year.

Buket Türkmen, a sociologist who ended a long career at Galatasaray University last year to move to Bordeaux University, said she was dismayed at seeing Macron pay what she said was little more than lip service to human rights.

Macron said he and Erdoğan “had different ideas” on terrorism and freedom of expression. This, Türkmen said, “reduced ideas which are fundamental to European thought, on the protection of human rights and respect to freedom of opinion” to liberal relativism.

That left the presidents free to discuss matters they deemed more important, she said. “The staging of the press conference resembles a business meeting far more than a political one. Even if France has taken any action regarding Galatasaray University or the imprisoned journalists, it is impossible to tell from the scene of the meeting.”

Even Macron’s body language, Türkmen said, displayed his insincerity on the rights issues, and as a result Erdoğan did not have to “take so much as a step back” on the matter.

Erdoğan’s trip to France was seen in Turkey as an attempt to rekindle Turkey’s damaged relations with the European Union following ongoing diplomatic disputes with Germany and the Netherlands and mounting criticism of the president by EU leaders for what they see as his creeping authoritarianism.

Güzin Aker, a long-serving academic at Galatasaray University’s French Language and Literature department, said Macron’s mention of academics and students on trial was eye-catching, particularly for an institution such as Galatasaray, which has close links to France.

The Academics for Peace case was particularly worrying, she said, as they are “faced with seven-and-a-half year jail terms for signing a petition that should be regarded as a call for peace”.

Ozan Soybakış is a doctoral candidate at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, after completing his Masters’ at Galatasaray.
Ozan Soybakış is a doctoral candidate at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, after completing his Masters’ at Galatasaray.

Ozan Soybakış completed his Masters’ at Galatasaray, and is now a doctoral candidate at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. Soybakış said Macron’s reference to his alma mater was significant. As a “grande école” ranking alongside France’s most famous institutes, Soybakış said Galatasaray was of great “symbolic value” for France.

“This, of course, raises other questions,” he said. “Does France only place importance on its own satellite institutes? Is it up to France to defend Turkey’s democratic freedoms?”

“Turkey’s highest quality, internationally recognised schools are up against a black propaganda campaign. These institutes are the targets of every new populist strategy. It is not enough to denounce and exclude intellectuals, they also have to meddle with the institutes,” Soybakış said.

Deniz Kap, a final-year student at Galatasaray’s Communications Faculty, said Macron’s statement on the university was “unsurprising”.

“The fact that there are signed agreements with France on education naturally brings certain responsibilities. So, whatever his intentions, this university’s status as a French-language school, and the agreements with France, must cause Macron some worry”, said Kap.

Other Galatasaray students were reluctant to comment.

“We as students find ourselves in a difficult situation trying to comment on Macron’s statement. Every sentence we use could spell trouble for us,” said Canel Vural.

“When I first started at university, Turkey was a different place. If somebody had told me back then what we are discussing today, I would have laughed. But now, we are in a situation that would have been unimaginable back then.

“Macron may be ‘worried’, but our own worries are far greater. It is important not to forget that.”