The gruesome murder of French professor Samuel Paty – beheaded by an 18-year old Chechen immigrant turned ISIS sympathizer for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during his lesson on free speech – has shocked the world, polarized French society, and sparked a bitter ideological spat between President Macron and President Erdoğan.
It would be easy to dismiss the altercation as nothing more than an ideological clash which will be over with tomorrow’s news cycle. However, France and Turkey have deeply rooted foreign policy differences that go beyond issues of religion and freedom of speech. With this current spat, it appears that both French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan are advancing their own political agenda and attempting to carve out strategic geopolitical positions.
After the murder of Samuel Paty, and the following fatal Islamist terrorist attacks in Nice, Avignon and Jeddah have further ignited a debate about state secularism, which is central to French identity but poses a number of issues for France’s five million Muslim citizens.
Some argue that France’s dearly held secularist values are arbitrary, because if religion should not interfere with the public sphere, the public sphere should also not interfere with religion. France’s ban on Muslim women wearing hijabs in public – perceived by them as an expression of their faith and opinion – epitomizes the complexity of the secularism debate in a country where many French Muslims are already afflicted by poverty, marginalized in politics and stigmatized in the media.
It is undeniable that France is by far the largest victim of Islamist terrorism in Europe, a somber fact that was lamented by President Macron is his recent remarks whereby France is under attack by an Islam that is “in crisis all over the world”. He then declared a state of national emergency and he unveiled a plan to fight “Islamist separatism”, responsible for creating a parallel culture that rejects French laws and norms.
Naturally, this didn’t play well with Erdoğan who – after suggesting the French president should undergo a “mental health check for his treatment of French Muslims” – accused Macron of Islamophobic demagoguery and called for a boycott of French products across the Muslim world.
This diplomatic dispute has added fuel to the anti-France protests that have ravaged from Morocco through Mali all the way to Bangladesh in recent weeks. Meanwhile, nationalist papers in Turkey have supported Erdoğan and called out Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their silence, whilst Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Pakistan, Malaysia and Iran have also condemned Macron for his comments. For his part, the French President has doubled down on his remarks about Islamist separatism and has withdrawn his French ambassador from Turkey.
Macron is Playing the Long Game
France has long struggled to integrate Europe’s largest Muslim population, and with his recent comments about “Islamist separatism” Macron has officially set his sights on the 2022 French Presidential elections.
He’s trying to appeal to more conservative voters who might otherwise defect to his challengers on the far right. In fact, though he comfortably won the 2017 elections, support for Macron has been waning and Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, far-right Front National party – which came in second in 2017 with a remarkable 10 million votes – is still a looming threat hanging over Macron’s hope for reelection. In fact, a recent poll about 2022 voting intentions found both Macron and Le Pen receiving the support of 25 percent of voters.
Far-right sentiments and France’s secularist tradition continue to play an increasinly crucial role in contemporary French politics, leading French public figures and the media to attack Islam, appease populist attitudes, and appeal to the electorate.
If this trend continues, both polarization between conservatives and liberals as well as Islamophobia are set to deepen across French society. This will likely further the risk of structural exclusion of Muslim citizens, which often has the counterproductive effect of turning those who are marginalized and disenfranchised towards radicalization.
The dispute between Turkey and France may be masked by the veil of ideology, but the “confrontational theatrics” between Macron and Erdoğan aren’t but a scapegoat to flex their muscles, advance their political interests, and fill geopolitical gaps in the international arena.
In fact, Erdoğan has long tried to position himself as Islam’s leading defender across the Muslim world and to assert Turkey’s power in the Middle East against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Meanwhile, Macron has been trying to appeal to the Western world and to position France as the new standard-bearer of liberal values in response to Donald Trump’s declining commitment towards liberal interventionism and democratization.
Moreover, though the two countries are allies under NATO, they are often at odds in a number of geopolitical disputes, including the civil wars in Libya and Syria, wherein Paris and Ankara support opposing sides. They also have antipodal strategic interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with the French siding with Armenia and accusing Erdoğan of supplying Azerbaijan with mercenaries. France is also leading international criticism of Turkey’s exploration for natural gas in Eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.
Conclusion: Ottoman Dreams Running Out of Fuel and France’s Identity Crisis
It emerges that Turkey and France’s sharp foreign policy differences have deep-seated roots that go well beyond ideology and religion.
On the Turkish front, by condemning an alleged cacophony of French Islamophobia Erdoğan is actually signaling his desire to play a dominant role in the Middle Eastern geopolitical scene. However, his strategy may ultimately backfire on him both in Brussels, in Washington, and at home.
In fact, the Turkish Lira has sank to an all-time low following investor’s concerns over Erdoğan’s aggressive behavior, while some Muslim countries – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have called for a boycott of Turkish products. The majority of Turkish citizens also appear to oppose their President’s agenda, which is exemplified by his approval ratings falling to 31 percent recently.
Erdoğan’s strategy isn’t likely to play well with the West either. European heads of state have all come together to support France against what they see as increasingly erratic, provocative behavior from Ankara. Across the pond, the Turkish President may face backlash from the US as well. It’s likely that Washington will perceive Erdoğan’s provocative behavior as a sign that he’s not looking to mend ties with his Western neighbors –a theory that is supported by Erdoğan’s recent cozying up to Putin and his acquisition of Russian missiles, which may ultimately cost him the crippling cost of US sanctions. If that is the case, Turkey will be on a dangerous path marked by severely damaged economic and diplomatic prospects.
On the French front, French companies will bear the brunt of Macron’s electoral scheming, which is being perceived as an attack against Islam by leaders of Muslim-majority countries.
At home, perception that the French way of life is in peril is illustrated by a poll taken after the attack on Samuel Paty, which found that 87 percent of respondents fear that their secularist society is under threat. Though it may have backfired internationally, Macron’s culture war rhetoric was always meant for an audience closer to home.
Ultimately, polarization and divisions about the Muslim faith are likely to deepen, while secularism risks being manipulated by politicians trying to gain political ground. This could in turn hurt an already alienated Muslim minority and entice criticism against allegedly arbitrary secularism.
This article was first published in Global Risk Insights
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius