France and Turkey are embroiled in geopolitical conflicts across three continents. Now terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists on French soil have sparked a culture war between Paris and Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused French President Emmanuel Macron of Islamophobia and called for a boycott of French products. On the surface, this appears to be a much less significant crisis than the hard geopolitical conflicts between the two states.
In Libya, Paris opposes Ankara’s military intervention on the side of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, which tilted the balance against the Benghazi-based forces of General Chalifa Haftar. In the most noticeable incident, Turkish naval forces targeted a French frigate with their fire control radar to prevent the French vessel controlling a cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya. In the eastern Mediterranean, France is one of the leading European voices criticising Turkish oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. In Syria, France has opposed Turkey’s targeting of Kurdish-led rebels, who President Macron recently called France’s “partners against Islamic jihadism”. Finally, as one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, France – which has a sizeable Armenian minority – has been working to counter Ankara’s diplomatic campaign against Armenia in the context of the war over Nagorno Karabakh.
So far, the political damage to Ankara caused by these crises has been limited. Paris has been unable to unite its European and Western partners behind a coordinated action against Ankara. European countries do not see eye to eye with France on these issues, and are unequally affected by the issues.
President Erdoğan appears not to realise the gravity of the crisis. This latest episode of cultural and symbolic disagreements could prove more consequential for Turkey than the hard geopolitical conflicts, for three reasons. Firstly, the dispute over Islam has direct and tangible effects on French domestic politics. The French far right, which is currently close to Macron in the polls, benefits from any tension with the country’s Muslim minority. Paris regards Erdoğan’s remarks as serious interference in France’s internal political affairs.
Secondly, Erdoğan’s campaign ostensibly singles out France but actually targets other European countries too. The tension over Muslim minorities is not just a French problem. It affects pretty much every Western European country – disproportionately to the actual size their Muslim populations. So whipping up this issue direct impacts domestic politics in all these states and is likely to assist the far right. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s announcements of a crackdown that will affect Islamic NGOs as well as those suspected of preparing violent attacks is designed to prevent a shift to the far right. It is unclear whether this strategy will work.
Thirdly, there is a very significant security dimension to this crisis. Erdoğan’s amplification of Muslim indignation could create a political atmosphere that encurages violent extremists to carry out attacks. In terms of urban terrorist attacks, the security dimension is relevant to pretty much all Western European countries from Spain to Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom. The latest attack in Austria, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, testifies to the immediacy of the threat. Such attacks also create conditions for a backlash from far-right terrorists in various European countries.
The direct and indirect effects of an atmosphere that encourages Islamist extremism are thus felt more homogenously across Europe. Several European governments and the European Parliament have already publicly backed Paris in its “war of words” with Ankara. The more Erdogan succeeds in promoting his anti-France agenda the more he might provoke a stronger backlash from the EU. Despite there being no link between Erdoğan and the attacks in France, the Turkish President occupies centre stage in the French debate in France. When news about the Nice attack broke, French broadcasters and commentators were very quick to discuss it in connection with his earlier remarks about France.
Unity around the issue of Islam in Europe and unequivocal support for France against Turkey have already been manifested in expressions of support by European leaders and most recently a statement by the European External Action Service. If the efforts to coordinate European statements and action force Turkey to back down, the experience could be applied in other disputes with Turkey. Erdogan is not known for giving in to pressure from Europe, but it is highly likely that Ankara will abandon its campaign against France in the face of a coordinated response. If this crisis helps to unite Europe to counter Turkey, it will be a first in the recent decades and could create a significant precedent. It might even lead to Europe finally finding leverage against Turkey if it considers taking concrete diplomatic and economic action against Ankara.
The spat between Erdoğan and Macron over Islam is driven by broader issues. Ankara is pushing back against French efforts to curb its influence over the Turkish diaspora and seeking leadership in the Sunni world. Sinem Adar argues that Europe’s leaders should act prudently.