Presidents Macron and Erdogan: Navigating or Generating a European Crisis?


By Pierre Tran

Paris – France may be a middle rank military power but the head of state pursues an active foreign policy, seeking to be a bridge over troubled waters around the world.

President Emmanuel Macron has strengthened political ties with Greece, opening the way to the prospective sale of Rafale fighter jets to the Greek air force, part of Athens’s  drive to re-arm its forces.

But that diplomatic, military and commercial victory will have poured more fuel on fiery relations between Macron and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is something highly personal in the row between Macron and Erdogan.

The Turkish leader spoke clearly Sept. 12 when he told Macron to be careful: “don’t mess with Turkey.”

Erdogan spelled out that warning in a speech to the nation, marking the 40th anniversary of army general Kenan Evren seizing power in a military coup in 1980.

Erdogan has steered Turkey through deadly conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and other points of tension around the Mediterranean.

France is also playing an active role in those armed struggles, as countries bordering the Mediterranean are clearly in the Paris back yard.

To make it clear it was personal not political, Erdogan called on Macron to consider the clock was ticking and his term as president was running out.

French voters go to the polls in 2022, while Erdogan was re-elected in 2018 and can stay in office for two five-year terms.

Macron was a surprise candidate in the May 2017 election and won on a reform ticket. Then along came the coronavirus.

Erdogan was speaking in response to Macron calling on European partners to act firmly with the Erdogan administration, making clear that was not an attack on the Turkish people.

Macron was speaking ahead of a meeting of leaders of seven Mediterranean nations, held on Corsica, dubbed in France as the island of beauty.

French relations with Turkey have been troublesome for some time.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the then president, called on Ankara to assume responsibility for the massacre of Armenians in 1915, and campaigned for a French law to make it illegal to deny the slaughter took place.

That draft legislation failed to make it on the statute books, but the message was clear to the Armenian community in France.

France has also refused Turkey joining the European Union, a struggling community of nations but still an economic force to be reckoned with.

Turkey may also be a key member of NATO, holding a strategic position with the Middle East, North Africa, and Western and Eastern Europe within reach.

But in Macron’s view, that alliance is brain dead.

For the Elysée office, a reflection of that lack of mental activity can be seen in NATO  declining to back French allegations a Turkish warship switched on its targeting radar on a French warship while on a Nato naval mission in the Mediterranean.

In Beirut, Macron was hailed as a force for political reform when he flew to the Lebanese capital in the wake of the deadly explosion last month.

That warm welcome in the street was abroad, while French critics said Macron should stay at home and deal with the deadly spread of COVID 19.

At home, the pandemic has led to a spike up in unemployment to 4.5 million jobless, and Macron has unveiled a €100 billion recovery plan.

At a time when Germany is seeking an orderly hand over of political power, Macron can claim to be the European trouble shooter in world affairs, now he has focused upon Turkey and the Turkish-Greek conflict.

Turkey is a regional force, with which France must deal.

How to do so is hard, given the bitter relations between the two leaders.

Featured photo: NEW YORK, USA – SEPTEMBER 19, 2017 : President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with President of France Emmanuel Macron (R) during the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in New York, United States on September 19, 2017. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)