On Tuesday 2nd of March 2021, Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked to Emmanuel Macron on a videocall. Listening to the conciliatory, if not amicable, address of the Turkish President to his French counterpart, one wonders if the Erdogan really meant his words a few months ago when he was hurling abuse on his French opposite number. However, at that time, Erdogan was addressing a domestic party audience, no tet-a-tet affair with Macron. Speaking to a crowd of loyal supporters who would buy any word coming out of his mouth, however weird or irrational, Erdogan chastised France for meddling in East Mediterranean affairs and called on the French leader to ‘check the state of his mental health’. On top of the personal affront on Macron, Erdogan urged the Turkish people to boycott French-labelled products.
Much as there can be personal likes or dislikes between world leaders there is one prime factor that determines the level of bilateral relations between countries: this is the convergence or divergence of political and economic interests.
Harping on medieval history, the Turks claim that their Ottoman ancestors gave the French ‘the most privileged state’ status under the terms of capitulations as early as 1535. The same year, the French dispatched Jean de la Forest as their first ambassador to Constantinople. Nevertheless, it took almost two hundred years for the Ottomans to reciprocate with sending their own envoy to Paris: The Ottoman Empire government appointed its first ambassador Yirmisekiz Mehmet Çelebi to France in 1721.
Nowadays, economic relations between the two countries are not insignificant. Currently 1.366 French companies are operating in Turkey. France ranks 10th country in terms of number of foreign companies operating in Turkey. In the years 2002-2015, French direct investments to Turkey have reached 6.759 billion US dollars. France ranks 10th in terms of foreign direct investments.
Beyond trade, Erdogan envisions the biggest role for Turkey: to become the region’s ‘law and order provider’. “There are also measures that we can take together … against terrorist organisations” Erdogan told Macron at the said videocall (2 March 2021), insinuating at his fervent desire to eliminate the PKK freedom fighters. The Turkish President added that Turkey and France ‘can contribute significantly to stability and peace in Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa’.
However, in practical terms Erdogan offered nothing: he did not mention anything on the fate of more than a dozen French teachers at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University whose work permits have been held up and who face the threat of expulsion due to last year’s diplomatic spat.
Recently, the Turkish leadership has been uttering some conciliatory words towards the EU in view of the latter’s summit later in the month. The European Council meeting is due to discuss further sanctions on Turkey as a reaction to Ankara’s provocative exploration moves in Greek and Cypriot waters. Such a big decision was postponed at the last European Council meeting (10-11 December 2020). Erdogan’s overture to Macron targets at weaning France from the hardline ‘in-favour-of-sanctions club’ where Greece and Cyprus stand and placing it within the moderates’ camp where Germany, Italy and Spain exhibit reluctance on the prospect of further antagonizing Turkey. The latter block’s cautionary stance has been explained by their significant commercial interests in Turkey and its anticipation that any measures leading to a Turkish economic crisis would, in turn, severely harm the European banking sector.
To be sure, sanctions or no sanctions, the Turkish leadership has over the last few years shown excessive zeal in promoting an assertive and expansionist foreign policy aimed at establishing a regional Pax Turca in the entire region that Erdogan mentioned in his videocall to Macron. It is highly unlikely that it will back down, for whatever reason, from this long-term goal.