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Hollande tries to leave domestic drama behind on Turkey visit

AFP , Monday 27 Jan 2014
Gul, Hollande
French President Francois Hollande, right, and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul inspect a military honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Cankaya Palace in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 (Photo: AP)
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On his first trip abroad since publicly splitting with his longterm companion, French President Francois Hollande made a visit to Turkey on Monday resolutely focused on Ankara's long-struggling bid to join the European Union.

But the trip, the first by a French head of state to Turkey in 22 years, was dramatic enough on its own with Hollande reviving a plan to submit Turkey's EU ambitions to a French referendum.

That pledge will likely draw the ire of Turkey, as it did back when former French president Jacques Chirac first floated it in 2005, before shelving it three years later.

It did not help that Turkey was also grappling with a dangerous new phase in a growing political and economic crisis that prompted an emergency meeting of its central bank Monday to come up with a way to save its savaged currency, the lira.

But for Hollande, the serious matters of state seemed a reprieve from the incessant media glare surrounding his affair with an actress, and his announcement to AFP on Saturday that his "shared life" with longterm partner Valerie Trierweiler was over.

While Hollande was meeting Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Trierweiler, now stripped of her position as first lady of France, was on a trip of her own to India, for a charity against hunger.

Hollande steered clear of any mention of his private life while in Ankara, presenting himself as a statesman with a decisive policy on the EU ambitions held by mostly Muslim Turkey, with its population of 76 million.

"No need to stoke fears. The French people will any case be consulted," he said during a news conference with Gul.

Noting that Turkey had resumed EU membership negotiations late last year following a three-year hiatus, Hollande added: "Negotiations do not entail membership. The issue of membership will be decided upon at a referendum."

Under EU rules, accession of a new member requires unanimous approval by the bloc's current 28 members.

Hollande can also rely on the fact that the EU has ruled out any Turkey membership before 2020 -- after his first term in office ends.

Speaking before Hollande, Gul agreed that "the negotiation process does not mean full membership".

But he stressed: "We hope that a political blockage will not take place."

Speaking of the issue-by-issue negotiations, Hollande said "this process must continue with the more difficult issues".

Those included ensuring the separation of powers in a democracy and especially the "independence of the judiciary," he said.

That was a swipe at moves in the past couple of weeks by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to curb the power of his country's top judicial body as he fights back against a corruption probe that has claimed the scalps of some of his ministers and closest business allies.

Hollande's presence in Turkey generally reflected a thaw in ties that had grown frosty over France's stance on Turkish EU accession, particularly under Hollande's rightwing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

Yet both sides stuck to their positions in a row over France's official recognition of a genocide by Ottoman Turks of Armenians in World War I -- something Turkey contests.

An attempt by French lawmakers in 2011 to declare it a crime to deny the genocide was struck down in February last year.

But Hollande made it clear that France's fundamental stance was unchanged.

"Uncovering history is always painful, but must be done," he said.

Gul for his part said that "woes of 100 years ago are our common woes.... It is not right to pass these woes from generation to generation.

"What should be done, instead of reviving these woes, is to leave these to historians. This issue can not be tackled unilaterally."

Hollande's trip was expected to open doors to business deals and investment, needed by both countries as their economies struggle.

France's share of the Turkish market halved to three percent between 2009 and 2012 just as Turkey was growing as an emerging economic power, tripling the size of its economy over the 10 years to 2012.

But French companies enjoyed a more successful 2013, sealing deals in Turkey worth 15 billion euros ($20 billion).

Following his talks in Ankara, Hollande was to head to Istanbul to attend an economic forum bringing together Turkish and French business leaders.

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