The Jan. 10 killings in Paris of three female activists for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) — listed as “a terrorist organization” by the US and the EU — comes at a sensitive moment for Turkey and France.
The bloody event occurred just as the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a politically bold yet risky move, began peace negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who's serving a life sentence in Turkey.
But the attack also came at a time when Turkey and France are trying to mend fences following a period of high tension and mutual animosity under former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The election of Francoise Hollande as president in 2012 has raised hopes that ties can be improved and efforts to this end are ongoing. The aim is to cap these efforts with a visit by the Hollande to Turkey sometime in the not so distant future.
However, Hollande’s remark — or gaffe depending how you look at it — following the Paris murders, in which he admitted he had been meeting one of the women killed, immediately electrified Erdogan, giving him a fresh opportunity to reflect righteous indignation, and show that ties between the two countries remain touchy.
"How can you routinely meet with members of an organization labeled a terrorist group by the European Union and being sought by Interpol? What kind of politics is this?" Erdogan retorted at a meeting in Istanbul, going on to demand that Hollande explain “to the Turkish and French publics what was discussed at these meetings.”
Erdogan often repeats his accusation that while the PKK may be outlawed by the EU, it enjoys official sympathy in many European countries, including France, where a blind eye is turned to the group’s lobbying and fund raising activities.
Paris has not responded to Erdogan’s remarks yet, and it is not clear that it will. EU diplomats in Ankara sounded out by Al-Monitor suggested that Erdogan’s outburst is more for domestic consumption than anything else.
These diplomats, who accept that Hollande’s remarks pose an embarrassment for France, believe that Paris is more interested in improving ties with Turkey presently, and will therefore most likely take Erdogan’s words as simply another rhetorical outburst aimed at mollifying domestic public opinion.
Those ties have been in stasis since 2001 when the French legislature recognized the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One as genocide, a charge Turks reject, arguing instead that millions from all sides perished in internecine warfare which turned Anatolia into a killing field at the time.
In an attempt to follow up its 2001 decision the French legislature moved in 2006 to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide, but the draft law proposing this was rejected by the Senate. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 as president, however, provided the supporters of the draft law an opportunity to make a second bid.
Sarkozy had, after all, made his antipathy towards things Turkish apparent during his term as interior minister by, among other things, vehemently opposing Ankara’s EU bid on the ground that Turkey was not a European country.
A new law was subsequently drafted, with support from Sarkozy, and worded in such a way that it did not name the Armenians, but would nevertheless punish those denying the Armenian genocide with a year in prison and/or a 45,000 Euro fine. Introduced in December 2011 it was also passed in the Senate this time in January 2012, sending Turkish-French into a tailspin.
Erdogan announced immediately that Ankara, as a first set of retaliatory steps, was canceling all economic, political and military meetings with France, adding that it would not permit French military planes to land and French warships to dock in Turkey either.
In move that shocked the politically beleaguered Sarkozy in the lead up to presidential elections, however, the French Constitutional Council quashed the law in April, in what turned out to be one of the worst political defeats for the French president.
In the meantime, another bone of serious contention already existed between Ankara and Paris after Sarkozy in 2007 blocked five chapters out of 35 in Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. He argued that these chapters on "Economic and Monetary Policy," "Agriculture and Rural Development," "Institutions and Regional Policy" and "Financial and Budgetary Provisions,” relate to full membership, which France does not foresee for Turkey.
Sarkozy was only prepared to offer a “privileged partnership” to Ankara, instead of full membership, as first proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel even though, unlike France, Germany has not moved to stymie Turkey’s EU talks, arguing instead that these are open-ended and may come to naught even if concluded successfully.
Meanwhile, on another level, Turkey and France under Sarkozy emerged as rivals following the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia and Libya where they vied for political and economic influence after the overthrow of Zein El Abidine Ben Ali and Moammar Gadhafi.
Under Hollande, though, that rivalry has been replaced with a more cooperative environment given that the two countries, both NATO members, have identical policies on Syria, for example. Meanwhile Turkey’s EU minister, Egemen Bagis, is hopeful that France will stop blocking key chapters in Ankara’s EU negotiations.
"I believe Mr. Hollande is trying to schedule his next couple of months and his plans include coming to Turkey. We are hoping that before he arrives in Turkey he will tell us the good news on lifting the blockade on at least two of those chapters," Bagis told Reuters in December.
France of course has many reasons to normalize ties with Turkey, which go back to the 15th century and include a historic treaty of alliance between Francois I and Suleiman the Magnificent in 1536.
While no official embargo was place by Turkey on economic cooperation with France in response to the Armenian issue, since Ankara’s international treaties would not allow this, French companies were nevertheless made to feel unwelcome in bids for strategic projects, especially in the transportation and energy fields.
As a sign of their improved ties the two countries are currently negotiating for the possible order of almost 150 Airbus A-380 jumbo jets for the Turkish carrier Pegasus. At the time of writing, French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq was due in Istanbul for talks on the topic.
With such major projects in the pipeline, and an economic crisis in Europe that has hit France also, it is unlikely that Paris will want fresh tensions with Ankara. But the picture is not all rosy and potential for tension remains.
The Armenian genocide issue, for one, continues to loom in the background as a potential spoiler, since Hollande has promised to place the matter on Parliament’s agenda again, even if it is not clear how he will overcome the ruling by the French Constitutional Council which quashed the previous law.
What is certain is that little can be taken for granted in Turkish-French ties as they stand today, and it is clear that the sides will have to work hard to overcome potential crises, which can erupt at anytime due to unforeseen events such as the totally unexpected murder of the PKK activists in Paris.
Semih Idiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English language Hurriyet Daily News.