After the war of words, are Paris and Ankara on the verge of a new era?

Audio 03:47
Facing the future? French President Emmanuel Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan may well be on the verge of closer cooperation.
Facing the future? French President Emmanuel Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan may well be on the verge of closer cooperation. LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL / AFP

Turkish and French Presidents are pledging to ease tensions after months of trading insults, but difficulties between them remain, especially over their increasingly contrary interests in Africa. Following a meeting, on the sidelines of June’s Nato summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that he had agreed with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on the need to revive bilateral cooperation and regional consultation.


French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared after the Erdogan Macron meeting, that Turkey and France are in what he described as a "recovery period.” The French and Turkish leaders have, until now, been engaged in an escalating war of words, competing for international influence. 

“We can talk about a reset with France,” says Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, but he warns against too much optimism of a sustainable diplomatic breakthrough. 

“It's a question about how deep that reset will go. This is part of a broader reset that Turkey has been trying in terms of its foreign relations with the West. However, none of the areas of disagreement with France have been resolved,” added Ulgen.

Libya as a major source of discord

Libya remains a crucial point of tension. France and Turkey backed rival sides in the Libyan civil war, and Paris has been leading international calls for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the north African country.

Last year, Turkish and French warships almost clashed off the shores of Libya over French claims that Turkey was violating an international arms embargo. But Ulgen says both sides now recognise the need for diplomacy.  

“There is realisation by both Ankara and Paris that some progress can be achieved, if the two are less confrontational and work diplomatically towards some sort of negotiated formula,” said Ulgen.

Potential allies against China

A Turkish presidential advisor has suggested France and Turkey could extend cooperation beyond Libya to the rest of Africa, in an effort to contain China's growing influence.  

Ankara is building up its presence on the continent, especially in the Sahel region. But Turkish moves to develop ties with former French colonies like Niger and Mali are causing alarm in Paris, says Jalel Harchouai, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based Global Initiative.  

Harchaoui warns the Sahel could become an increasing point of tension rather than cooperation. 

“There is a real rivalry. There is an actual competition in the Sahel. France is getting weaker and weaker in the Sahel, all areas which used to be secure like Chad are shaky. Turkey wants to be present militarily, it is already very present diplomatically, and it's very ambitious commercially.

"We are talking about a time horizon of fifteen or thirty years. So if France sees an adversary in that, I think that France is correct because there is not enough room for both former colonisers of the area,” said Harchaoui.

Erdogan as champion of oppressed Muslims

For now, both French and Turkish presidents appear interested in downplaying their differences. But that could change with next year's French presidential elections, where the role of Islam in French society will be a campaign issue. 

Erdogan portrays himself as a defender of Muslim rights worldwide and has in the past accused Macron of islamophobia – an issue Erdogan also uses for leverage in majority-Muslim African countries, much to the concern of diplomats in Paris. 

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