The tangled tussle between Turkey and France

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to visit Baghdad and possibly Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region on Wednesday, underscoring the sudden ubiquity of Turkey-France disputes – on religious, historical and ideological grounds, in the Mediterranean, Cyprus, the Levant, the Maghreb and the Sahel, as well as on French soil.

“Macron to visit Iraq in two days, maybe the Kurdish region,” analyst Michael Tanchum tweeted on Monday, referring to an area recently invaded by Turkish troops. “Seems like a full court press against Turkey's expeditionary positions.”

The increased tensions between Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began in June, when a French frigate near the coast of Libya seeking to enforce a NATO arms embargo and search a cargo ship was harassed and targeted by Turkish naval vessels escorting the ship, according to France. Ankara rejects this account and says the cargo ship was carrying humanitarian aid.

“It was already tense between Turkey and France when that happened,” Guillaume Perrier, long-time Turkey correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, told Ahval in a podcast. “But for sure this incident opened a new period.”

Macron described Turkey’s role in Libya, where it has been supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), as criminal for a NATO member. Referring to France leading the 2011 NATO invasion that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and its backing of GNA foe General Khalifa Haftar, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said France helped drag Libya into chaos.

Days after the Beirut blast early this month, Macron visited Lebanon to offer French assistance in rebuilding. Erdoğan denounced the French leader’s visit as colonial and making a spectacle of disaster. Erdoğan, who famously replayed the Christchurch mosque attack video at 2019 campaign rallies, and his backers tend to accuse others of Ankara’s own foibles, in what appears to be an impressive lack of self-awareness.

“Paris does not hesitate to cooperate with illegal actors such as the coup plotter Khalifa Haftar and terrorist groups such as the (Kurdish militant groups) YPG/PKK,” Sakarya University lecturer Kemal Inat wrote for Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency the day before Erdogan hosted Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, labelled a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, in Istanbul.

Inat smartly argued that Macron took office in 2017 thinking he had to overtake Germany and put France at the forefront of EU influence or face losing out to the far-right. This helps explain why one of his first diplomatic initiatives was brokering talks between Libyan foes GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar, and why this week he again invited Sarraj to Paris for negotiations.

Macron has strongly backed Athens and Nicosia in their maritime and territorial disputes with Turkey and last week dispatched French warships to the eastern Mediterranean. As Germany has been looking to mediate Turkey-Greece tensions and oversee Libya negotiations, it would be a coup for Macron to be able to broker a Libya settlement, though Sarraj is unlikely to commit to any deal without Erdoğan’s approval.

In Libya, Turkey has sought to ensure the survival of its maritime deal with the GNA, put an Islamist ally in power and renew strong commercial ties. French oil giant Total has been working in Libya since the 1950s and last year invested $650 million in the Waha concessions, based in Sirte province. A Turkey-backed GNA assault on Haftar’s forces in Sirte would thus mean an assault on French interests. Some have speculated that the July air strike on Turkish assets at Watiya airbase was carried out by French jets.

The two leaders’ duel for influence extends further south. France has a significant military and commercial presence in Niger, and relies on Nigeran uranium for its nuclear power. Last month, Turkey and Niger signed a series of economic and defence cooperation deals that included mining allowances. “Turkey's recent diplomatic progress in Niger has put a chink in the armour of France's Sahel redoubt,” Tanchum wrote last week for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Domestic concerns help explain why Macron is quick to denounce Ankara’s assertive foreign policies, as well as Erdoğan’s response. Despite neither facing an election anytime soon, both hope to appeal to more patriotic voters.

“It’s useful for both Erdoğan and Macron to have such a rival at the moment, for domestic reasons mainly, and for reaffirming diplomatic strategy,” said Perrier. “Macron has to look for votes on the right ... This means he has to show he’s strongly opposed to Turkey’s role in the Mediterranean and inside France.”

Last month, the French government denounced Erdoğan’s decision to re-convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque – a decision that came days after the French Senate issued a 244-page report on the growing and dangerous influence of Islamists in France.

The report pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood as the most problematic group and cited Turkey, which is responsible for half the foreign imams in France while representing just 5 percent of the population, as the main supporter of these so-called religious “separatists”.

In January, Macron delivered a speech on this form of separatism in Molouse, near the German border, which has a sizable Turkish community that tends to support Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “He used that word to target Turkish political activities inside France,” said Perrier.

“He deliberately targeted Turkish interests and tensions created by Turkish groups to please the rightist voters,” said Perrier. “We know that AKP supporters, AKP organisations in France are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood ... We know they support organisations like COJEP in Strasbourg, which is very active.”

COJEP, an NGO with 15 branches across Europe, on its website claims to fight racism, promote human rights and help migrants gain citizenship. Perrier says it is mainly run by former members of Turkey’s far-right National Movement Party (MHP), has significant influence among French Turks and supplies candidates for the pro-AKP Justice and Equality Party (PEJ).

Since the AKP embraced the MHP as its parliamentary partner in 2017, the ultra-nationalist MHP-linked Grey Wolves have been empowered in Turkey and across Europe. A recent report by MENA Studies Centre estimated that 20,000 are active in Germany and at least 5,000 in Austria, and the numbers are rising.

In June, Grey Wolves in Vienna attacked the rally of a Kurdish women’s organisation looking to raise awareness about violence against women in Turkey, spurring a state investigation which led to the creation of a government body to examine foreign-backed nationalist and Islamist groups.

In late July, French Armenians in Decines, on the Rhone, rallying in support of their homeland were targeted by Turkish nationalists, including hooded Grey Wolves youths carrying knives and iron bars and encouraging each other to “find the Armenians” and attack them. Turkish nationalists resent Armenians accusing the late Ottoman Empire of a genocide against their people.

“Let the Turkish government give me 2,000 euros and a weapon and I will do what needs to be done, wherever in France,” local Grey Wolves leader Ahmet Cetin reportedly said in a video from the event.

Cetin is now in prison and will be in court next month on charges of inciting violence and armed assembly. “One of the most virulent Turkish extremists in France, Cetin is well known and followed,” said an article last week in Le Parisien. Perrier said Cetin ran as a PEJ candidate in the 2018 local elections and that his Instagram account shows a clearly defined political stance.

“He appears on social media like a gang leader who pretends to raise an army in France, a Turkish army, with weapons,” said Perrier, adding that this sort of nationalist hate speech is increasingly common. “This is more and more popular among the French-Turkish community, which is about 500,000 and mostly pro-AKP...The MHP and Grey Wolves are very popular among them.”

Cetin’s threat may not be an idle one. In the 1970s and 80s, Grey Wolves death squads often killed foes of the military regime on Turkish streets and occasionally executed enemies of Turkey in Europe, mainly Kurds. In 1981, a Grey Wolf tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Vatican City. Erdoğan has hinted at plotting assassinations against Turkish foes abroad.

“Turkey is more and more perceived as a troublemaker inside French politics,” said Perrier. “Erdoğan is understood now as a potential threat to Europe.”