Turkey and France Ease Tensions, but Africa Rivalries Remain
By Dorian Jones June 28, 2021
Leaders of Turkey and France are pledging to ease tensions after months of trading insults, but tensions between them remain over their competing interests in Africa.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared Turkey and France are in what he described as "recovery period" after the French and Turkish President met on the sidelines of the NATO summit earlier this month and pledged to resolve their differences.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan had engaged in a war of words as the two leaders competed for international influence. Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies says there has been a diplomatic breakthrough but he voices caution.
"We can talk about a reset with France, but 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," said Ulgen.
Libya remains a crucial point of tension. France and Turkey backed rival sides in the Libyan civil war, and Paris is at the forefront of an international call 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 a Libyan arms embargo. But Ulgen says both sides now recognize the need for diplomacy.
"There is realization 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," says Ulgen.
A Turkish presidential advisor has suggested France and Turkey could extend cooperation beyond Libya to the rest of Africa 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 is causing alarm in Paris, says Jalel Harchouai, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based Glob
Harchaoui says the Sahel could become an increasing point of tension rather than cooperation.
"There is a real rivalry," he said. "There is an actual competition in the Sahel. Because 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 years 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 colonizers of the area."
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 is a campaign issue.
Erdogan portrays himself as a defender of global Muslim rights and has in the past accused Macron of Islamophobia â€” an issue Erdogan also uses for leverage in majority-Muslim African countries, much to Paris' unease.
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