Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid an official visit to France on October 7-9 to attend the celebrations as part of the Season of Turkey, which served as a venue to re-evaluate the current condition of Turkish-French relations, and induce a new degree of economic rationalism into a partnership that has been negatively affected by political tensions in recent years.
Since its inauguration in June, the Season of Turkey project to promote Turkish culture in France, which will continue until March 2010, has served to highlight the underlying problems in Turkish-French relations. The idea of a “year” of festivities was first developed by the former Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the former French President Jacques Chirac. The original idea of holding a Turkish year was downgraded to a “season” reflecting the recent difficulties between the two countries. Indeed, bilateral political ties have deteriorated, as was also reflected in the popular perceptions of France within Turkey (EDM, August 17). The French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s drive to block Turkey’s E.U. membership bid while advocating a privileged partnership for Turkey gained ground within Europe, contributing to the victory of conservative representatives in the European parliamentary elections (EDM, June 10). Even the future of the Season of Turkey was unclear in mid-2009, as the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly expressed his frustration with Sarkozy’s views, raising the possibility that the Turkish government might cancel the project. Successful efforts by the Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay and the E.U. Minister Egemen Bagis to convince Erdogan allowed the project to survive (Today’s Zaman, October 10).
The French press speculated that Gul was given a “minimum level” reception. Allegedly, Sarkozy did not want to be seen together with the president of a country whose E.U. membership he had opposed. Sarkozy cancelled his meeting with Gul on Wednesday and Thursday and the two finally met on October 9, which was followed by a limited number of press representatives due to Sarkozy’s insistence. French diplomatic sources speaking to the Turkish press, however, denied these allegations, claiming that Gul had received a warm welcome by French officials (ANKA, October 8; Today’s Zaman, October 9; Anadolu Ajansi, October 9).
On October 9 Gul and Sarkozy opened an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. During their working lunch at the Élysée Palace, the two leaders discussed bilateral relations, including Turkish-E.U. membership negotiations and regional affairs. Gul downplayed the extent of the political tension between the countries. In an interview with the French press prior to his departure to Paris, Gul emphasized that although countries might naturally have differences of opinion, Turkey and France had deep-rooted common interests, and they were not affected by any major conflict of interest. He noted that Turkey’s E.U. membership process was contingent upon its own performance, and he did not anticipate any major obstacles on the path toward full membership (ANKA, October 7).
Indeed, both sides were determined not to let the troubled course of Turkish-E.U. negotiations spoil their mutual partnership in other areas. According to officials from Sarkozy’s office, the French president raised the possibility of French firms joining the Nabucco project. Gul in return expressed his pleasure with the eagerness of French energy companies, yet stressed that the final decision on such issues would rest with the Nabucco consortium members. French companies’ interest in nuclear energy cooperation and the possibility of joint projects in nuclear energy in Central Asia were also discussed (Anadolu Ajansi, October 9).
Energy cooperation has emerged as a major driving force in Turkish-E.U. relations in recent years, as Turkey’s bridging role between the Caspian basin and Middle Eastern producers and European markets has provided leverage to manipulate the course of its negotiations with Brussels. However, Ankara has used the “energy” or “economy” card as a stick to punish obstructive French policies aimed at blocking its E.U. accession or the French support for Armenia. The Association of French Businessmen (MEDEF) complained about the undeclared Turkish veto against French companies in Turkey’s major public tenders, including energy projects. French exporters and investors were also reporting problems in penetrating the expanding Turkish domestic market (ANKA, February 15, 2008). Ankara awarded the contract for the national attack helicopter to an Italian company, while a Russian firm won the competition to build the country’s first nuclear power plant. Ankara also blocked the participation of Gaz de France in Nabucco. Instead, the German RWE joined the consortium as the major European energy company in order to increase the credibility of the Nabucco project. Such punitive policies have hardly paid off as reflected in Paris’s continued opposition to Turkey’s E.U. membership ambitions.
Cognizant of the negative economic repercussions of such political tensions, the French and Turkish business communities are attempting to strengthen commercial ties between the two countries. On October 9 MEDEF and Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD) co-sponsored a conference entitled, “French-Turkish Partnership: to be Stronger in Europe and the World.” Addressing the conference, Gul continued to advocate Turkey’s admission into the E.U. He highlighted the benefits of Turkish membership in the future evolution of the European Union.
Evaluating his trip, Gul told the Turkish press that he held a very honest and open conversation with Sarkozy. He expressed clearly Turkish arguments, while Sarkozy explained the views of those opposing Turkish membership. Gul emphasized that the conjectural problems in Europe should not lead to a situation whereby Turkey’s full membership is questioned. He nonetheless expressed his pleasure that during his talks with Sarkozy, the issue of “privileged partnership” did not appear on the agenda (Anadolu Ajansi, October 9).
Although the Season of Turkey was overshadowed by bilateral political tension, it may also mark the beginning of a new era in Turkish-French relations. The growing activism of the business community could help heal the wounds caused by the recent negative course of Turkish-French relations. In return, Ankara might also start to recognize that it will be worthwhile to use its economic power as a positive inducement rather than as a negative tool to promote more fruitful relations with Paris.