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How to respond to Recep Tayipp Erdogan?

How to respond to Recep Tayipp Erdogan?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The attacks of the Turkish president against Emmanuel Macron and France have reached a nearly inconceivable level. But the personal insults seem almost secondary: what is really at stake is Recep Tayipp Erdogan’s deliberate playing of the "clash of civilizations" card in order to further polarize Turkish society and to extend this polarization to the entire Arab-Islamic world.

Over the years, and similarly to other neo-authoritarian regimes, the Turkish government has equipped itself with significant means of manipulating information. It now intends to use these according to the precepts also developed before him, by Vladimir Putin among others. Thus, Turkey tried to isolate one or two sentences from the speech Macron held in the town of Les Mureaux (on "separatism"), even though these were actually very measured and thoughtful, in order to depict Emmanuel Macron as a leader of Islamophobia. This fuse did not really catch.

Then, the Turkish media produced for domestic consumption, under Erdogan’s orders, ignored the October 16 assassination of Samuel Paty. No real expression of solidarity came from Ankara. A few days later, Erdogan and his disinformation apparatus used a phrase from the homage paid to Paty by the President of the French Republic at the Sorbonne - "we will not give up cartoons" - to make people believe that France’s official policy was to ridicule the prophet. This was followed by a call for a boycott of French products.

Erdogan immediately found followers for his anti-French campaign, such as in the Pakistani Prime Minister, who shares the "new sultan’s" leaden silence on the persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities. Other countries, including those friendly to France, such as Morocco and Jordan, felt obliged to pledge their fidelity to Islam, which is supposedly threatened by the French government (in contrast, the principal representatives of this religion in France have unequivocally condemned the murder of Samuel Paty). Indeed, they fear that the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) - a Turkish variant of the Muslim Brotherhood - will succeed in his takeover of Arab-Islamic opinion.

Official responses from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have countered Erdogan’s campaign to challenge the Saudis for leadership of Muslim public opinion. The call for a boycott is unlikely to be heeded widely. 

Official responses from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have countered Erdogan’s campaign.

Still, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-French campaign is dangerous in several ways. First of all, it endangers French lives - abroad and perhaps even in France - at a time when fanaticism has just struck again, this time in Nice. It can alienate sections of public opinion in countries that are important to France. It could also find an echo in the Anglo-Saxon world, given the incomprehension that the notion of French-style secularism arouses in countries like the United States.

It is cause for concern that notable newspapers of the American establishment, such as The New York Times, tend to posit that Macron and Erdogan are equally at fault.

France thus has a "battle of narratives" to fight and a major public diplomacy campaign to deploy, as we did, for example, in 2005-2006. To put it bluntly, we must avoid the label of "Islamophobia" getting under our skin. We live in a globalized world, where we must neither conceal our opinions nor appear insensitive to other cultures.

That is what President Macron has set off to do, by giving a 55-minute interview to Al-Jazeera, providing useful clarifications to the Muslim public opinion. He stressed that in France, one is free to mock religion through cartoons, but that these cartoons do not represent the views of the government. 

We must also avoid being locked into a France-Turkey or Macron-Erdogan tête-à-tête, which does not help our purpose and plays into the hands of the Turkish leader. Seen this way, Erdogan’s excesses may serve us well: in his desire to play up a "clash of civilizations", he has just attacked Germany again, going so far as to compare the fate of Muslims in Europe today to that of the Jewish people in the 1930s. Several years ago already, the Turkish president did not hesitate to speak of "Nazis" in reference to the leaders of northern Europe. Our partners chose to lay low then, so as not to compromise the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees.

Today, the situation is different. Erdogan’s internal position has weakened considerably. The Turkish economy is plummeting. One wonders to what extent his "civilizational" gesticulations (such as the recent conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque) can reverse the current questioning of his power that has taken hold in Turkish opinion, for example among its youth.

Above all, the headlong rush into which the President of Turkey has launched actually leads him to multiply risks - his support for Azerbaijan is an example - and to accumulate errors.

With regard to Europe, the European Council of October 1 concluded with some openings towards Turkey, for instance concerning the modernization of the Customs Union, in response to the withdrawal of Turkish drilling vessels from Cypriot waters. It was commonly accepted that this was the result of action taken by Angela Merkel. The idea of sanctions was put aside.

Yet in the aftermath of the European Council, Erdogan sent an exploration boat back to the island of Kastellorizo - a kind of slap in the face for the German Chancellor. At a new summit on October 16, European leaders resorted to threats once again. This time, sanctions had become almost inevitable. Similarly, Turkey has chosen to provoke the United States by "testing" the S-400 missiles it purchased from Russia, while the Pentagon believed it had obtained guarantees from Ankara that these machines would not be put into operation. 

President Macron stressed that in France, one is free to mock religion through cartoons, but that these cartoons do not represent the views of the government. 

In these circumstances, France’s tough attitude, often perceived as excessive or unnecessarily provocative by our partners and allies, seems more comprehensible. It is in our interest to do everything possible to form a common front against Erdogan, especially among Europeans, in order to consolidate a balance of power that is, in truth, unfavorable to the Turkish head of state.

The question of NATO remains open-ended. The NATO card is a delicate one to play for the French, who are always suspected of not having only the organization’s best interests at heart. The Turkish president’s core asset is this: while Erdogan gains credit from Putin, who is delighted to have driven a wedge between Turkey and NATO, the Turkish President continues to enjoy the indulgence of the North Atlantic establishment, which is horrified at the idea of "losing Turkey".

It is a bluff that should reach its limits at some point - for example, when a new administration is installed in Washington. To "call this bluff", the French authorities have a tactical interest in not abusing public denunciation: they must let the facts speak for themselves and resort to behind-the-scenes dialogue.

In short, confronted with Erdogan’s disinformation, France must react with a strong public diplomacy campaign, but it should also move cautiously and discreetly in consulting with its allies and partners. 


Copyright: Adem ALTAN / AFP

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