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Who are the Grey Wolves and why is France banning them?

France has passed a decree outlawing the far-right Grey Wolves, but Turkey has said no such organisation exists
Supporters of Turkey's opposition Nationalist Action Party
Supporters of Turkey's opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) make a gesture associated with the "Grey Wolves" during an election rally on 24 May 2015 in Ankara (AFP)

A move by the French government to outlaw the Grey Wolves, a Turkish far-right organisation, has provoked both anger and confusion in Turkey.

The decision came after a memorial to the Armenian genocide was defaced near the city of Lyon last week. The words "Grey Wolves" and the initials of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were scrawled across it.

The ban, which was approved on Wednesday, means any activities or meetings by the group could lead to imprisonment or fines.

The Turkish government hit back, with the foreign ministry on Thursday saying it would "react to this decision in the harshest way".

They also said, however, that there was no such organisation as the Grey Wolves.

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On Thursday, a number of parliamentarians in Germany also called for the group to be banned.

Three German Green Party MPs, including Turkish-German politician Cem Ozdemir, described the organisation as "Erdogan's extended arm" in a joint statement, adding that its members "repeatedly stir up hatred, threaten people and are also involved in acts of violence".

"We will approach the other parliamentary groups with the aim of presenting a joint, intergroup initiative in the German Bundestag for a ban on the Grey Wolves," they said.

Who are the Grey Wolves?

Grey Wolves is the informal name of the ultra-nationalist organisation Ulku Ocaklari [Idealist Hearths], founded in the 1960s by Alparslan Turkes, a colonel who had been involved the 1960 coup which overthrew Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.

Ulku Ocaklari is often referred to as the youth or street movement of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), also founded by Turkes, which is currently allied with President Erdogan in Turkey.

Ideologically, both organisations supported pan-Turkism, which emphasises unity between the world's Turkic nations.

Turkey's opposition leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli gestures the "Grey Wolves" sign during an election rally on May (AFP)
Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Turkey's Nationalist Action Party (MHP) demonstrates a gesture associated with the "Grey Wolves" during an election rally in May (AFP)

The Grey Wolves were originally a fiercely anti-communist group, hostile to democracy, advocating violence against those they saw as Turkey's enemies.

They have been responsible for acts of violence, including murder, targeting leftists, communists, Kurds, Armenians and other minority groups in Turkey. Some killings by Grey Wolves members were later revealed to have taken place in cooperation with the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).

Though the group is mostly secular and largely hostile to Islamism, they claim to defend a Sunni Muslim character of Turkey and have carried out acts of sectarian violence against the country's Alevi religious minority, including the notorious Maras massacre of 1978.

Since Devlet Bahceli became leader of the MHP, following the death of Turkes, the party and the Grey Wolves have presented themselves as moderates, professing support for liberal democracy and toning down their overt ethnic nationalism, though opponents argue this is largely a facade.

'This organisation is not only organised in France, but in many other European countries. In these countries too, action should be taken against this inhuman organisation'

- Devris Cimen, HDP Europe

Their relationship with Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been complex. For many years relations were hostile due to the crackdown on ultra-nationalists that took place around the Ergenekon trials of the late 2000s, while the MHP fiercely opposed the opening of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2013.

However, the relationship between the MHP and the AKP has improved since 2015, when the AKP reversed many of the pro-Kurdish reforms of the 2000s and began pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy while espousing stronger nationalist rhetoric. The parties have maintain an electoral alliance since 2018, and the MHP supported a "Yes" vote in the 2017 referendum over Erdogan's executive presidency.

Not all MHP positions are adhered to by followers of Ulku Ocaklari, however. Ten former heads of the organisation came out to publicly call for a "No" vote in that referendum.

What does the French ban mean?

The French government decree does not explicitly refer to Ulku Ocaklari, and the details of the ban are vague.

The ban refers to the hand salute commonly used by supporters of the group, known as the "Bozkurt" or "Wolf Sign" in Turkey.

Though the gesture is linked to the Grey Wolves, it is used by many Turks to specify nationalist sentiment. Both Erdogan and main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, have been pictured flashing it in the past.

Other groups, including the religious ultra-nationalist Great Unity Party (BBP), which split from the MHP in the 1990s, as well as volunteer Turkish, Turkmen and Arab fighters in Syria, have frequently been pictured using it too.

In the decree, the Grey Wolves are referred to as a "de facto grouping," and a number of incidents are cited of anti-Armenian violence carried out in France by Turks chanting ultra-nationalist slogans.

A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter flashes the Grey Wolves (a Turkish far-right ultranationalist organisation) sign as a convoy travels along the border between Syria and Turkey (AFP)
A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter flashes the Grey Wolves gesture as a convoy travels along the border between Syria and Turkey (AFP)

The decree describes one 2016 incident in which "about 15 militants from this group, armed with sticks, iron bars, knives and a revolver, and their faces masked by red and white scarves in the colours of the Turkish flag, attacked a stand run by demonstrators of Kurdish origin".

No official organisation is cited in the decree, nor is there any reference to Ulku Ocaklari or the MHP.

Nevertheless, some Turkish groups have reacted with concern to the new measures.

The France Turkish Federation, a diaspora group affiliated with the MHP, released a statement on Wednesday condemning the move.

"Everyone should be sure that we as the France Turkish Federation will closely follow the developments and defend the rights of our organisations and citizens within democratic legal grounds and continue to defend democracy, freedom, brotherhood and equality until the end," said the statement.

At the same time they urged their "associations, members and citizens not to respond to provocations and to avoid any attitudes or behaviours that may disturb peace and order".

Middle East Eye contacted Ulku Ocaklari for a reaction to the ban, but received no response by time of publication.

Devris Cimen, the European representative for Turkey's left-wing pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), welcomed the ban, which he pointed out came at a time of "massive tension between Paris and Ankara".

"But this organisation is not only organised in France, but in many other European countries. In these countries too, action should be taken against this inhuman organisation," he told MEE.

"Furthermore, one should make a deeper investigation into how this organisation is conducting a hostile policy against Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and other non-Turkish people."

Germany to follow?

Banning the Grey Wolves or Ulku Ocaklari in Germany would be a much bigger ordeal than the French ban.

Turks form the largest ethnic minority in Germany and much of the politics of Turkey has been imported into Germany in the past 50 years.

According to a 2017 report by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, the Grey Wolves are currently the largest far-right movement in Germany, dwarfing even home-grown neo-Nazi movements.

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There have been numerous attempts over the years to ban the group, which has been known to get into violent street fights with leftists and pro-Kurdish groups in Germany.

Germany's criminal code outlaws "unconstitutional" groups, which has in past led to the closure of neo-Nazi, Communist and Islamist parties.

In 2018 there were attempts to ban symbols associated with the group, with Kurdish-German Die Linke MP Sevim Dagdelen describing the Wolf Sign gesture as "quite comparable to the Hitler salute," which is banned in Germany, along with other Nazi symbols. That same year, a ban on the Wolf sign was successfully established in Austria.

On Thursday, Dagdelen called for the specific banning of the German Democratic Idealist Turkish Associations Federation (ADUTDF), a Turkish diaspora organisation linked to Ulku Ocaklari.

She rebuked Cavusoglu's comments that the Grey Wolves did not exist, saying that organisations such as ADUTDF were not "a product of imagination" and were the public face of the group.

"ADUTDF is one of the largest far-right, anti-constitutional organisations, with approximately 170 local associations and 7,000 members," she said on Friday, according to Deutsche Welle.

"Islamist and fascist organisations should be given zero tolerance."

MEE contacted ADUTDF for a comment, but had received no response by time of publication.

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

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