“What do we have to do with Turkey, which belongs to the complicated Orient,” former French president Charles du Gaulle famously asked in the early 1960s.
The sentiment has remained rooted in the French collective consciousness for generations. It has therefore not been surprising that right-wing French governments have long been among the staunchest opponents of Turkey’s accession to the EU.
A cloud has loomed over French-Turkish relations. Even if it has sometimes thinned to wisps to allow artificial warmth for the sake of the pursuit of mutual interests, genuine affection has been lacking.
In recent years, the gap between the two has grown, and the cloud has looked more thunderous than ever. One reason has been France’s support for the Kurds, and the Anatolian Kurds in particular. It has also welcomed dozens of Kurdish activists, offering them an international podium and a free press, things which have not gone down well with the authorities in Ankara.
The French authorities strongly suspect that Turkey’s notorious MIT (National Intelligence Agency) was behind the triple assassination of three Kurdish women activists in Paris in January 2013. Their bodies were found, shot execution style, in the Kurdish Information Centre in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. The Élysée Palace has since made a point of meeting Kurdish political leaders.
As the Turkish president has grown increasingly autocratic and attempted to extend his reach into France in other ways, France has also followed Germany’s and Austria’s lead in dispensing with Turkish imams in French mosques in order to curb the influence of radical Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood thought in French society, according to analysts.
It is therefore little wonder that French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the harshest critics of the US Trump administration’s decision to withdraw US forces from northern Syria without coordinating with its allies.
Macron lashed out at what he called the US “betrayal of the Kurds,” which gave Turkey a green light to launch its long-desired aggression against the Syrian Kurds. “It weakens our credibility in finding partners on the ground who will be by our side and who think they will be protected in the long term. So that raises questions about how NATO functions,” he said.
He simultaneously condemned the Turkish invasion of Syria and called for an immediate halt to Turkey’s cynically codenamed “Peace Spring” Operation.
Many quarters of the French press have voiced their outrage and dismay. “It’s the end of the Kurds in Syria: the fear and despair of the refugees chased by Turkey,” lamented the French newspaper Le Monde, for example.
Last week, the French magazine Le Point threw down the gauntlet, when the cover of its 24 October edition featured a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hand to the brow in a military salute, beneath the headline “Ethnic Cleansing: the Method of Erdogan, Eradicator.”
The word “eradicator” was written separately in a large yellow font across the cover. Below was a subtitle, asking “Will he be allowed to massacre the Kurds (and threaten Europe)?”
The following day, Erdogan’s lawyer, Huseyin Aydin, filed a complaint against Le Point Editor-in-Chief Etienne Gernelle and columnist Romain Gubert. The 11-page complaint, submitted to the Ankara chief prosecutor, charges the two journalists with “insulting the president” on the basis of Article 299 of Turkish Penal Code.
It argues that the cover of the magazine cannot be deemed an expression of a political view that falls within the framework of the exercise of freedom of expression.
Le Point replied to the effect that “Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a problem with freedom.” Beneath the heading “From Dictator to Eradicator” it showed the cover of its May 2018 edition featuring a grey-looking Turkish president beneath the title “Dictator: How far will Erdogan go?”
Ankara and its media machine then got up in arms. “The Kurds will not be your proxies. Your colonial days are over,” Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a tweet. “The slander about ‘ethnic cleansing’” comes from “France, which colonised Algeria, Gabon, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Congo, Tunisia, Comoros, Madagascar, Djibouti, Mali, Benin, Chad and Morocco, massacred thousands and engaged in the slave trade, and stood by to watch the Rwanda massacre.”
However, as some Turkish opposition writers have observed in response to such attempts to deflect Western criticisms against their government’s policies, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The Turkish press also had a field day covering the latest Yellow Vests demonstrations in Paris. Televised images of the protests were aired regularly throughout the day on Turkish television, and the Turkish foreign minister issued a statement condemning the French authorities for the “use of excessive force,” and calling on them to respect the right to peaceful protest.
After all the French criticisms of the Erdogan regime, Ankara has apparently found a way to say “touché”.
Erdogan’s legal action against Le Point will probably go the same way as its predecessor against the magazine’s May 2018 edition, especially given the way in which Macron and others have voiced their support for the magazine.
But the incident will not be the last. As diverse a spectrum of opinion one finds in the French media, opinions converge when it comes to Erdogan and his political and economic injustices.
In the meantime, a grand merci to Erdogan’s legal team for drawing worldwide attention to magazine coverage that could otherwise have gone unnoticed outside of France.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.