Erdogan v. Macron: Power, Faith And The Opposite Of Diplomacy

Things are heating up between Erdogan and Macron, leading to the recall of the French ambassador in Ankara. France's efforts in training local imams may thwart Turkey's policy of influence through religion.

Turkish President Erdogan and his French counterpart Macron in Istanbul in Oct. 2018
Marie Jégo


ISTANBUL — Insulting French President Emmanuel Macron is definitely the new pet project for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been touring the country's central and eastern provinces to build his support. On Sunday, in a speech delivered in Malatya, in eastern Turkey, Erdogan for the second day in a row launched a vehement attack against his French counterpart, whom he accused of having a "problem" with Islam, and to whom he recommends receiving "undergoing medical examinations."

Reiterating comments made Saturday about Macron's mental health, the Turkish president declared, "He is obsessed with Erdogan, day and night." He had already recommended "mental health tests' for the French president. "What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam?" he asked in a speech to the delegates of his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), in Kayseri in central Turkey.

Judging these remarks "unacceptable," France took the rare step of officially recalling its ambassador in Ankara for consultation. The last time this had happened in the history of French-Turkish diplomatic relations was in 1901. The Elysée presidential office wanted to send a strong signal, adding in a communication that the Turkish leader "change the course of his policy because it is dangerous from all points of view."

French-Turkish relations are at an all-time low.

French authorities denounced a lack of condemnation or solidarity from the Turkish authorities after the terrorist attack last Friday north of Paris, when a French teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by a fanatical Islamist for having shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression. Turkey's ambassador to France offered his condolences, the Turkish foreign ministry said Sunday.

The brutal killing went unnoticed in Turkey, where the official story distilled by the media revolves around "Islamophobia" and "fascism" in France. "France has recently launched a vast witch hunt against the Muslim community," wrote the daily Sabah, the mouthpiece of the government. Meanwhile, a false rumor is spreading on Turkish social media, according to which caricatures of the Prophet are projected on the walls of government buildings all around France.

Praying in Paris during the national homage to slain teacher Samuel Paty on Oct. 21 — Photo: Adnan Farzat/NurPhoto/ZUMA

French-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. Tension has risen gradually over the months between the two presidents: first over the war in Libya, then over Turkish explorations in the eastern Mediterranean and recently over Ankara's support for Azerbaijan, which has gone to war again against Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In all these foreign policy dossiers, the Turkish president plays the troublemaker, blowing on the embers of old resentments and conflicts that have not been properly extinguished. Erdogan often aims to assert himself as a global defender of Sunni Islam and oppressed Muslims.

The French president as a paragon of Islamophobia makes a convenient scapegoat for Erdogan, and an easy way to boost his popularity domestically. These days, he needs it. According to the opinion research institute Avrasya, if the presidential election, scheduled for June 2023, were to be held now, Erdogan would get 38.7% of the vote — compared to 41.9% for his main rival, Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul. The economy is tanking and the president's beloved cultural revolution project is a failure. He acknowledged this when he inaugurated the campus of the Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul on Friday, Oct. 23: "In the fields of education and culture, we have not succeeded in forwarding our ideas," he said. His disappointment was directed at journalists: "Our media does not reflect our voice."

They castigate France as a "colonialist" and "racist" country.

Yet most government media faithfully report the thoughts of the "Great Man," one of Mr. Erdogan's nicknames. They join in continuously in castigating France as a "colonialist" and "racist" country where Muslims are persecuted in the worst way. Seen from Ankara, this persecution resembles "the demonization of European Jews in the 1920s," as Fahrettin Altun, the director of communications for the Turkish presidency, recently tweeted. Altun added that "Europe is an increasingly dangerous place for Muslims."

Implicitly, the Turkish authorities have not digested the fact that Macron seeks to strengthen control of Muslim places of worship on French soil, having also decided to end foreign imams and preachers coming to France. Turkey is the foreign country with the biggest influence on Islam in France, since it alone sends half of the 300 imams that come from abroad. It fears it will lose its influence if a proposed law on reinforcing secularism in France is passed. The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, financed by Ankara to promote Turkish Islam abroad, risks losing its goodwill. The French president's speech in Les Mureaux on Oct. 2 and his allusion to "Islam in crisis' particularly unnerved Erdogan, who had called it an "abuse of power." That is a syndrome the Turkish president knows well.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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