Talking sense to the French

Backing out of a long-cherished tradition of taking a unique policy position to ensure greater autonomy and independence, France decided to return to the integrated military command structure of NATO with the hope of repositioning itself to boost Paris’s influence in shaping the future security policies of the West. It was a reversal of policy initiated by former President Charles de Gaulle, who pulled the France out from the alliance’s military wing in 1966.

Understandably, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a tough time selling this U-turn to his own critics on the domestic front, who accused the flamboyant French leader of betraying the country’s unique legacy. Yet Mr. Sarkozy held his ground, saying re-alignment between Paris and Washington will increase France’s influence on a number issues ranging from the Middle East to Afghanistan.

One important aspect in this reversal did go unnoticed by the public eye during the home-coming ceremony for the French. Turkey, which maintains the largest military force in the alliance after the United States, decided not to retaliate against France’s staunch opposition to Turkey’s full membership in the European Union by invoking its veto power to block France’s return.

I believe the time has now come for Mr. Sarkozy to make another U-turn in his passionately committed foreign policy agenda for the good of his own citizens, namely on Turkey’s aspirations of joining the 27-nation bloc. Otherwise, many suspect the price tag for not being able to see eye to eye with Turkey on the EU drive will increase substantially in the next decade, costing the French people dearly.

Let’s recap. French firms are unofficially blacklisted in Turkish government tenders, which have been mouth-watering for many international investors. French state-owned nuclear group Areva was barred from entering its bid into a nuclear reactor tender in Turkey, while Gaz de France (GDF) was vetoed by Ankara from participating in the international consortium building the Nabucco pipeline, which will connect Caspian natural gas resources to the European market.

The openly anti-Turkey rhetoric of Mr. Sarkozy, though it may be scoring few points at home at the expense of France’s long-term interests, has been reinforcing the negative feeling in Turkish public opinion about Paris for some time now. Sensible French politicians fear that the alarming trend may eventually erode the very basis of a sustainable relationship between the two countries as it is chipping increasingly bigger chunks away from the ties each time Sarkozy utters hostile words about Turkey.

He should know by now that a France without Turkey on board would have a hard time delivering on promises involving the Middle East, Eastern and Central Europe, Nordic countries, Caucasus, the Black Sea region and the Mediterranean basin.

Just last month we witnessed how he was able to make a fool of himself when he unsuccessfully tried to bring together the leaders of Israel and Syria in Paris, in an attempt to revive the peace process between the two countries, which had collapsed earlier this year under the mediation of Turkey after the Gaza onslaught by Israeli defense forces. His efforts failed when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who insists on Turkish mediation in order to return to peace talks with Israel, opposed an idea which apparently left Turkey out.

I was in Spain on a trip with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu when the news broke, creating an embarrassment for the French Foreign Ministry. I asked him how he reacted to the news. Being a diplomat, Mr. Davutoğlu said Turkey would support all kinds of good-will initiatives in the Middle East but warned that without sufficient preparation, such efforts may well lead to disappointment. “Eight months have passed since the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, but the same disaster is continuing in Gaza. Conferences and meetings that do not set their goals precisely may lead to disappointment,” he underlined.

The French ambassador in Ankara, Bernard Emie, whom I met on several occasions and had candid discussions with, strikes me as a clever and insightful person. Unfortunately, this veteran diplomat is also a man with little room to maneuver and few chips to cash in, all thanks to Mr. Sarkozy. He certainly had high hopes when Turkish President Abdullah Gül paid an official visit to France in October, during which Gül and French President Sarkozy launched the Season of Turkey in France. He was hoping the occasion would mend strained relations between the two countries and provide an opportunity for a fresh start. Well, it has not come true yet.

Mr. Sarkozy’s France should realize that cooperation with Turkey on a number of issues rather than confrontation would deliver better prospects for the French people. Even Germany and Austria are signaling changes in policies regarding Turkey’s EU bid, and their leaders are shying away from public statements that might be construed as openly hostile. It looks like Mr. Sarkozy, if he keeps this up, will be leaving a grand legacy for the French in which so much contraction has happened in so little time, thus limiting the field of diplomatic maneuver for his successor.

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