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Mr. Erdogan in Paris: A Strategic Turning Point or A Trivial Event? 

Mr. Erdogan in Paris: A Strategic Turning Point or A Trivial Event? 
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

A surprising meeting took place at the Elysée Palace on 5 January between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Macron.

No doubt the head of the Turkish state, weakened at home and increasingly isolated abroad, came to Paris seeking to "increase the number of his friends" according to his own formula and, more precisely, to reconnect with Europe. Given the breakdown of his relationship with the German Chancellor, he had no other choice but to knock on the Elysée’s door. Besides, the two presidents get along, as several previous meetings on the margins of international summits and recurring phone calls have demonstrated. 

"Both countries share common geopolitical interests, which require bilateral cooperation."

Mr. Macron’s response, though very polite, was also straightforward: “no possible progress, let’s not have the hypocrisy to discuss new chapters”. However, he did indicate his eagerness to “see whether a new relationship could be envisioned, not as part of the European integration process but perhaps in the context of a cooperation, a partnership with one goal… that of preserving Turkey’s European anchorage”. This is actually an idea Nicolas Sarkozy had already expressed - and even with the same wording, a “partnership”. It is true that President Erdogan has mentioned that the issue of Turkey’s accession to the bloc has exhausted its people. It is also stated that Brexit deprives the Turkish candidacy to the EU of one of its main traditional supports. More generally, it might be that this shifting context will make Emmanuel Macron’s refusal more acceptable to the Turks, while the same message coming from Mr. Sarkozy a few years ago and more recently from Ms. Merkel would have sparked a - Jupiterian - fury. 

Anyhow, the meeting’s atmosphere, or at least that of the press conference, seemed perfectly cordial. Business contracts were signed. The French President, usually comfortable in his role of “tamer of autocrats”, unambiguously recalled the French desire to see the rule of law respected in post-coup Turkey - “freedom of speech cannot be divided” - but discreetly rescued his counterpart when, irritated by a journalist’s question, he reacted with misplaced brutality.  

So, what was behind the welcoming climate of this bilateral summit? First, as we have just mentioned, the context has changed and the Turkish government is in a position of relative weakness. Second, “hypocrisy” remains latent: the Turkish authorities probably know their candidacy to the EU is in a stalemate, but given the public opinion’s expectations - 70% of the Turkish people still wishes to join the EU -, they are not in a position to admit it publicly. Hence, president Erdogan most likely chose not to understand what Macron was saying. Third, and this might be the most important factor for the future, both countries share common geopolitical interests, which require bilateral cooperation. This is particularly the case for the terrorism issue, concretely emphasized by the return of French jihadists from Iraq or Syria through Turkey, or for PKK’s funding, explicitly mentioned by Mr. Macron. Two figures rarely seen in official meetings were spotted at the Elysée: Hakan Fidan, director the Turkish secret services (MIT) and Bernard Emié, his French counterpart and former ambassador of France to Ankara.

Other topics were addressed by the two presidents - Syria, Iraq, Palestine - on which various degrees of convergence, but a common interest for cooperation, were expressed. In this regard, the main issue was that of the Syrian Kurds, France’s allies in its fight against Daesh, who are considered as enemies by the Turks. It can be envisioned that, on these different topics, the dialogue will now be pursued by the administration and the presidents’ surroundings. 

"Is it possible to revive the relation between Turkey and Europe, whilst leaving aside its “Brussels” facets (accession process, etc.) and focus on the contrary on common geopolitical issues?"

A crucial question for the future was implicit throughout the meeting: is it possible to revive the relation between Turkey and Europe, whilst leaving aside its “Brussels” facets (accession process, etc.) and focus on the contrary on common geopolitical issues? Without neglecting, of course, the economic interests which both parts regard as essential. The Europeans might find in this approach the answer to some of their challenges - immigration, protection of the EU’s external borders - and the Turks might benefit from an alternative partner to the evanescent American ally and to the cumbersome Russian interlocutor. 

If we were to follow this reasoning, Turkey’s choice to re-engage with Europe via Paris is not only circumstantial: France is currently the last great European country seen as capable to think in terms of geopolitical perspectives. However, let’s not leap to any hasty conclusions about this visit. Some signals suggest Mr. Erdogan, in order to prepare the ground for the upcoming elections, is incentivized to erase the most repressive aspects of his recent policy, although nothing proves he is considering a substantial revision of his current position. On the European side, there is still a long way to go until a strategic line, inspired by the one drawn by Emmanuel Macron on 5 January, is adopted. New misunderstandings can always arise and jeopardize the healing of this long-time troubled relationship. 

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