Strained Relations- France and Turkey

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Image courtesy of Reuters.

By Rachel Rochford (‘23)

Among the slew of other problems that emerged in the world this year- a pandemic, economic turbulence, etc., France now finds itself in conflict not only with its own Muslim population but with many Muslim-majority nations abroad. Turkey is one of the nations in conflict with France at present yet their conflict may run deeper. At this point, it is one of multiple issues. 

One of these disputes is over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. This area is legally part of Azerbaijan but its population is mainly composed of ethnic Armenians. Those living in Nagorno-Karabakh have expressed the desire to either join Armenia or become their own nation. Fighting over this recently ramped up again and, as tensions grew deeper between Armenia and Azerbaijan, France offered to help in the mediation process. Turkey meanwhile has a very volatile past with Armenia and a close friendship with Azerbaijan. So, Turkey was quick to side with Azerbaijan whilst France attempted to mediate the conflict. 

Officials in Azerbaijan accuse France of being biased after President Macron criticized Turkey’s involvement in the conflict. The Azeris believe that this suggests support for Armenia which is part of why the international peace effort has mainly been led by Russia.

The larger issue between the countries started within France though. On October 16, 2020, a French teacher named Samuel Paty was beheaded after using depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, something forbidden in Islam, in a lesson on Freedom of Speech. Paty warned students what was to come before the depictions were shown so that students for whom this would be problematic could leave the room. 

The man who carried out the attack was shot and killed by police on sight, however, in the days following the attack, seven others, including two of Paty’s students and one parent were later arrested. Whilst the majority of Muslims in France say that what happened to Mr. Paty was extreme and unjust, the majority also says that Samuel Paty did something wrong by showing depictions of the Prophet in his class. 

This divide in France with the Muslim community is not a new phenomenon for the country France maintains an official policy of state secularism or the idea that religion will be separate from public spaces as one of its national values, arguing that this brings the nation closer together. 

Debates over state secularism are nothing new. They appeared before in 2010 when France passed a ban on wearing clothing in public that covered one’s face. The nation gave state secularism as the reasoning for doing this. The argument is that the coverings worn by many Muslim women are a religious symbol. France then argues that said coverings must not be worn in public in order to promote state secularism. 10% of France’s population is Muslim though. Furthermore, those Muslims who wear a veil are not to be unveiled in front of men whom they are not related to. 

Thus, there is a clash in France between the French law banning coverings in public and Islamic law’s requirement of them in front of male non-family members. Thus, there is a clash in France between State secularism and Freedom of Religion. 

In 2015, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad after which the magazine was attacked by Islamist gunmen. After this, there was again the divide in France as many non-Muslims there supported the magazine’s publication of the cartoons while 70% of Muslims believed that their publishing was wrong. While both groups condemned the attack strongly, the division between these groups and between State secularism and Freedom of Religion is quite prevalent in France. 

Today, the issue has reached beyond France and into many Muslim-majority nations. After the recent attack on Samuel Paty, French President Emmanuel Macron showed an outpouring of support for Mr. Paty. Macron made one statement that referred to Islam as a religion in crisis. After this, many Muslim nations began to boycott French products. 

As a Muslim nation, Turkey joined in on the condemnation of France. Turkey went a bit further than many though. The president of the nation asked publicly what Macron’s problem was with Islam and Muslims, at one point stating “Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” After this personal attack on Macron, France recalled its ambassador to Turkey in a show of extreme displeasure. Nations do not frequently recall their ambassadors; it holds great significance. In this case, it points to the fraying relations between France and Turkey. While this diplomatic dispute between the two nations will hopefully soon be resolved, the larger issue is France’s internal debate over State secularism and Freedom of Religion.

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