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  • Writer's pictureThomas Cole

Erdogan’s French product boycott symptomatic of Franco-Turkish relations

President Erdogan’s call on Monday for a boycott of French products, should not be seen in isolation but is a wider sign of poor Franco-Turkish relations.

President Erdogan had, over the weekend, suggested that Macron required “mental assistance” over the French President’s recent comments that he wanted to root out fundamental Islamimism from France, whilst also defending the right of publications in France to depict the Prophet Mohammad, something forbidden in Islam. This follows the recent killing of a French school teacher for having shown pictures of the Prophet Mohammad to school children, whilst earlier this month, Macron had stated that Islam was facing a “crisis”.

Erdogan’s call to boycott French products, coming following actual boycotts over the weekend in some countries in the Middle East as well as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan suggestion that Macron was “encouraging Islamophobia”, should not be seen in this broader context but more the narrower focus of deteriorating Franco-Turkish relations.

These have been poor recently with the two sides finding themselves on opposite sides of the conflict in Libya, in the Eastern Mediterranean gas drilling disputes and also in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the case of Libya, Erdogan has lent his support to the UN-backed regime in Tripoli whereas France has been one of many countries to back the forces of General Haftar in the East of the country.

In the case of the Eastern Mediterranean gas drilling disputes, the two countries also find themselves at odds. Whilst Turkey sent its gas exploration ship, the Oruc Reis, into what Greece claimed was Greek territorial waters, France stood by its EU ally against Turkey calling on Erdogan to back down. Separately, earlier this year, the two sides had to play down a naval incident in the eastern Mediterranean, whilst in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey is supportive of Azerbaijan, whilst France with its Armenian diaspora population, tending towards support for Yerevan. It would be easy to forget that the two countries are NATO allies.

Both President Macron and President Erdogan are looking to solidify their positions at home. Macron has an election to face in just over 18 months’ time whilst Erdogan, ever since the 2016 failed coup attempt against him has been looking to further enhance his powers whilst quashing dissent. Both leaders have also looked to play a role in parts of their respective former empires – Turkey in Syria, both against Assad but also against the Kurdish forces, whilst Macron had looked to try assisting with political reform in Lebanon, following lengthy protests as well as the Beirut port blast in summer.

Erdogan’s call for a boycott of French products, however, may have been a miscalculation by the Turkish President as it brings into wider consideration the issue of EU-Turkey relations. Many EU leaders, including the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, lent their support to Mr Macron today.

Turkey is also still nominally an EU applicant country, despite the EU’s official line since 2018 being that “negotiations have effectively come to a standstill.” With Erdogan’s call for a boycott of French products, the head of Government of an EU applicant is directly calling for a boycott of EU produce. EU applicants are encouraged to align with EU rules not to put up barriers to trade. The real question now becomes as to whether Macron decides to escalate the row and try to convince other EU leaders that the EU should now go a step further and either put EU accession talks on ice indefinitely or go further than this and pull the plug completely to Turkey’s EU aspirations.

Other member states will be wary about being drawn into a Franco-Turkish dispute and will also recall the migration crisis of 2015, where the EU-Turkey deal was supposed to end the flow of refugees and asylum seekers into the EU. There is very little appetite for a repetition of this, where Erdogan in the past has threated to “open the floodgates”.

Nevertheless, if Macron does choose to escalate the situation, it could hardly come as a surprise to Erdogan – calling a boycott of French goods was unlikely to go completely without response from Paris. With attempts to de-escalate the Oruc Reis drilling issue it had looked as if that Franco-Turkish relations were beginning to thaw. This is now looking unlikely as both Presidents Erdogan and Macron decide what next steps to take as relations between the two sides look less and less stable.

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