On October 25, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled its ambassador to Turkey. The rare and high level rebuke came after the growing feud between France and Turkey turned personal as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to the recent terror-related murder of a French schoolteacher beheaded in the suburbs of Paris after showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his class during a lesson on free speech. Mr. Erdoğan said that Mr. Macron needed “a mental check” and accused his French homologue of fostering hostility towards Muslims.
There is an old adage in the entertainment industry that a high profile feud is beneficial for all parties involved and that seems to hold true for world leaders as well. For Erdoğan’s part, picking a fight with France on this issue furthers his goal of presenting Turkey (and by extension himself) as the leader of the Muslim world and the defender of Muslims around the globe. Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to push Islam ever closer to the center of Turkish society. Earlier this year, he oversaw the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia (a Byzantine era cathedral turned mosque, turned museum and one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks) into a mosque, effectively desecularizing a monument that many Europeans consider to be a part of their architectural and cultural heritage. Suffice it to say, Muslim indentity politics have long been at the heart of Erdoğan’s political style.
But, Erdoğan has another reason to direct his ire at Macron. Whether it be the Libyan Civil War, the dispute in the eastern Mediterranean, or the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, everywhere Erdoğan seeks to further his hegemonic ambitions, he is met by steadfast French opposition. Since taking office in 2017, Macron has reinvigorated French foreign policy in a bid to reassert France as the preeminent geopolitical power in Europe and the Mediterranean. Under Macron, France has expanded her military operations in North Africa, strengthened her economic ties to her former colonies in West Africa, inserted herself into domestic political reforms in Lebanon, and positioned herself as the defender of Europe’s southern and eastern flank. As Macron famously proclaimed at Davos in 2018, “France is back” and has eagerly filled the void in the Mediterranean left by a United States that has become increasingly inward looking in recent years.
But, Macron stands to benefit from this spat as well. As ambitious at home as he is abroad, Macron’s domestic reforms have rarely been met with enthusiasm from the French people. As such, Macron has taken to highlighting his successes abroad to detract from his criticisms at home. Furthermore, as France grapples with a new wave of islamist terrorism, a feud with Erdoğan allows Macron to present himself as defender of the unifying French values of free speech and laïcité (secularism) against the divisive religious nationalism central to Erdoğan’s politics. In France, the indivisibility of the French people is sacrosanct; it is so central to French society that the first sentence of the first article of the French constitution reads: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” So, to describe this as a boon to the French president would be an understatement.
Despite the domestic pressures that might incentivize Erdoğan and Macron to play up this recent incident, it is unlikely that much more than the recall of the French ambassador will come of this. Erdoğan has called on Turks and Muslims around the world to boycott French products, but for a number of reasons—including Turkey’s reliance on French companies for products and jobs and France’s relatively small trade balance with much of the Muslim world—it is unlikely to have a impact anywhere. However, this feud is likely a harbinger of things to come. France and Turkey are vying for hegemony in the same areas of the world and they will undoubtedly continue to butt heads. Both Macron and Erdoğan have clearly defined regional ambitions and head up two of the largest militaries in Europe. For Macron and other europhiles who dream of the European Union as the third world superpower, pacifying Turkey’s ambitions and securing Europe’s southern and eastern borders is seen as a crucial stepping stone towards stability and security for the EU. Up to now, many of Europe’s other leaders were content to turn a blind eye towards Erdoğan’s ambitions as long as he kept a new wave of Syrian refugees from sparking another migrant crisis in Europe. But, as Erdoğan has become more willing to draw a line between Turkey and the West, those sentiments may be beginning to change. Regardless of how the rest of Europe responds, there is undoubtedly a new axis of conflict in the Mediterranean and decisions made in Paris and Ankara will likely reverberate across the three continents that share its coasts.