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France-Turkey feud: 'French anger is all about losing influence'

The Nato allies' relationship has dissolved in recent months, with Turkey's expanding role in the Mediterranean causing friction
France's President Emmanuel Macron gestures as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks past him during a family photo as part of the NATO summit (AFP)
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Ankara

A few years ago, observers would tout Turkish-French cooperation as exemplary. Now, senior French officials release statements every other day condemning Turkey's actions in the Mediterranean and Libya.

What happened?

“Turkey happened,” says a senior Turkish official, speaking anonymously. “They don’t like the fact that Turkey is taking control.”

Ask a Turkish official a question about France's outbursts, and you will invariably elicit laughter. They portray French anger over Ankara’s moves in the Mediterranean and Libya as something comparable to a child who lost its toy - or in this case, its influence.

Though little discussed now, France's vocal discontent began not over Libya but Syria, when last year Ankara launched an offensive against the the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed militia spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG, which is seen as a terror group by Turkey.

'France has become Russia’s facilitator, and it is also a threat against Nato. This could shatter the alliance in the future'

- Turkish official

Paris, the former colonial power in Syria, strongly protested the move alongside other western allies, as French President Emmanuel Macron and his predecessor previously hosted the SDF leadership and lauded them as heroes in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Eventually, Turkey struck deals with both the US and Russia, mostly halting the short-lived offensive. “Yet, France was left out of the process,” the Turkish official says. “And that was the beginning of their frustration.”

Charles Thepaut, a French career diplomat who is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute think tank, confirmed in a Twitter thread that Paris has been agitated by the Turkish moves in Syria.

“Paris thinks quiet diplomacy didn’t work 2017-2020,"  he wrote, adding that Ankara rejected French attempts to convince it to change course over its conflict with the YPG, purchase of Russia's S-400 missiles and plans to drill off Cyprus.

France is also angry, he said, at Ankara's insistence on blocking a Nato Baltic defence plan unless the alliance also designates the YPG as a terrorist group.

“[Turkey] took military action, unilateral steps and built up its tandem with [Russia],” Thepaut wrote.

Existential threat

Turkish officials, however, are aghast at this stance. They say when it comes to the YPG, France has no say in Turkey's national security concerns, which are perceived as “existential” by its public.

They also accuse France of using Nato to settle its own scores with Turkey.

“The discussions on defence plans are totally classified, meaning: it is secret,” the official said. “So they leak secret exchanges to media and talk like they have the moral high ground.”

He added that Turkey last month withdrew its opposition to the Baltic defence plan after reaching a political compromise, which the official said won’t be revealed.

As for Turkey's relationship with Russia, which has grown closer in recent years, Turkish officials say France has been the one permitting and even encouraging Russian involvement in Libya through their mutual support of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

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“France enabled Russia’s entrance to the Mediterranean. This is really concerning. France has become Russia’s facilitator, and it is also a threat against Nato. This could shatter the alliance in the future,” a second Turkish official told MEE.

In terms of Libya, French officials maintain that Turkey had been violating an arms embargo to support the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.

Paris has repeatedly accused Turkey of playing a dangerous game with its intervention in the country, which earlier this year alleviated Tripoli from a 14-month assault and put Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) on the back foot.

France can't say it has no military involvement in the conflict itself, however.

The French defence ministry last year admitted that four of its anti-tank missiles were found in a base used by Haftar's forces. And the UAE, which alongside Egypt militarily backs Haftar, is currently using French-made jets to bombard GNA-held territory.

Meanwhile, Macron is silent on the presence of Russian mercenaries in the country, and Moscow's increasing support for the LNA.

“I don't think France is actually violating the arms embargo, but French allies [the UAE and Egypt] do it, with the political support of France,” Jean-Dominique Merchet, a French journalist specialising on defence affairs, tells MEE.

For Turkish officials, the matter is simpler. “They used to run the show in North Africa,” said a third official. “No more.”

Officials note that Paris was once one of the main mediators in the region, inviting warring parties in Libya to talks and excluding pretty much everyone else.

“Now they feel that they are excluded. And they don’t like it.” the official said.

Domestic concerns

Turkish officials don’t believe that the issue is all about Macron. “It is the French government's reaction as a whole. He isn’t only speaking his mind,” the third official said.

But Macron has nonetheless taken ownership of French views and policy that are critical of Turkey, and they go far beyond foreign policy.

In January, in an address to the Armenian community, Macron spoke about “Turkish interference” in French society, and promised that he would “put an end to all educational practices that do not respect the rules, laws and curricula of the school of the republic".

“For the French government, the problem with Turkey is larger than Libya,” Merchet says. He says the links between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Muslim Brotherhood are something troubling for Paris, as they are arch-foes of French allies the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

'France used to run the show in North Africa. No more'

- Turkish official

“And even France's poor suburbs [are a problem]. The French president now describes Islamists there as 'separatists',” he said.

Turkey's links to its diaspora in France and across Europe are strong. But its practice of sending Turkish teachers and imams to educate French children of Turkish origin particularly bothers French authorities.

Meanwhile the French interior ministry in January rejected a Turkish resident’s application for citizenship because of their “pro-Erdogan” views, local media reported.

Observers in Turkey have noted that Macron's increasingly hostile speech on Ankara and the Turkish community comes as he courts the French right-wing.

His centrist Republic on the Move party failed to score any major victories in local polls last month, and in a cabinet reshuffle this week the president appointed ministers from the right-wing parties to position himself better for the upcoming presidential election.

Despite the tensions between the two allies, Turkish officials say they still think their disagreements can be worked out, if Paris looks at the issue with a realistic approach.

"They should stop backing the Libyan warlord and try to protect their interests in a more sensible way. We are an enduring ally," the third official said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.