Sarkozy’s Turkish Troubles

By Aube Rey Lescure:

As the Clintons, David Cameron and other famous politicos gathered in Prague this December to attend the late Czech leader Vaclav Havel’s funeral, French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s mind was more in Turkey than in Central Europe. Despite the funeral’s beauty and solemnity, it was the image of western unity that contrasted most sharply with the fuming crowds and protests led outside the Turkish French embassy, where Turks angrily brandished posters of Sarkozy’s face. In his hotel room Sarkozy allowed time for an emergency interview by national chain France Television; his slow theatrical voice repeating the words “morals” and “principles” with infinite gravity.

Our poor friend Sarkozy—who hopes to be re-elected in 2012—is already France’s favorite object of disdain and criticism. Now a high-profile public spat with Turkey over the recognition of the Armenian genocide has led to a formal diplomatic fracture and suspension of military cooperation between the two countries. The French senate has just passed a bill criminalizing the denial of genocides, and although it is not name-calling Turkey in specific the Turks have taken up the issue with an intense sentiment of victimization. The alleged Armenian genocide (which is widely recognized to be one, although the U.S. has never agreed to affirm or negate the specific use of the term ‘genocide’) occurred almost a century ago, when Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were deported and massacred on a large scale during and after WWI. The Turks claim, however, that it wasn’t on a large enough of a scale to be called ‘genocide’. Rather, they’d like to think about it as a military measure used for the purpose of national defense. Naturally, both the young Turks protesting en masse in the streets and the current Turkish statesmen were not alive at the time of the massacres, but they share a patriotic passion for defending this particular controversy in Turkish history.

Regardless of the legitimacy of word-use, the most striking moment of this December debacle was when the Turkish Premier Recep Tayyid Erdogan gave a press conference that constituted mainly of personal attacks on Sarkozy and tu quoque arguments condemning France for genocide in Algeria. Sarkozy, Erdogan claimed, was trying to win re-election support by spurring “Islamophobia” and “Turkophobia”.

Sarkozy has come under fire for his views on a recent French law criminalizing the denial of genocide. (Flickr Creative Commons/World Economic Forum)

That’s the type of statement that turns world politics into a playground fight. I’m sure all that French voters have on their minds is how to elect a good old-school Muslim and Turkey-hater. The Turkish Premier’s words are, nonetheless, equally alarming because they reflect the long-standing Turkish sentiment of being marginalized by the EU. Most of the western world is now counting on Turkey to act as a regional stabilizer (did anyone say Syria?) and work to counterbalance Iran in the Middle East; and Sarkozy’s G8 colleagues certainly weren’t too thrilled that he was igniting Turkish anti-Europeanism over a historical debate—but then again, genocide is genocide and no one could really come out and tell the French to quit beating a dead horse. Sarkozy certainly tried to emerge as a martyr out of all this, asserting that he wasn’t going to trade his morals and principles over certain economic or military advantages with Turkey.

Whether or not the whole issue was orchestrated to shed light on Sarkozy’s righteousness has naturally become the talk of France’s conspiracy theorists. These same people had already kindly accused the Bruni-Sarkozy couple of “planning Carla’s pregnancy” as a campaign move—everyone loves babies, right?  The Turkish ambassador, for his part, couldn’t board a flight out of Paris to Ankara without noting that Sarkozy was “making things very difficult for the next French president, who will have to try very hard to repair relations with Turkey,” a sour parting shot sure to characterize the future of the Franco-Turkish relationship.

Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College.  She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on E.U. affairs.  Contact her at