Remember the enormous optimism in Turkey when François Hollande was elected? Predictions abounded that Turkey’s path to EU membership was going to be far easier than it had been under Sarkozy, and it appeared that the kerfuffle over the Armenian genocide denial bill in France was a thing of the past. At the time, I thought this enthusiasm was misplaced, and wrote the following:
France sees much of North Africa as being in its domain given its colonial history there, and it is threatened by another outside power establishing deep economic ties as Turkey has been doing. The Armenian issue is also not one that was first initiated by Sarkozy; the French parliament voted in 2001 to declare the events in Armenia a genocide and the Assembly voted in 2006 to criminalize its denial (it did not pass the Senate at that time). Turkey-bashing is a popular electoral sport in France no matter who is running, and the emotions that it stirs up are not so easily suppressed once the votes are counted. At the end of the day, a Hollande victory is likely to herald a positive reset in France’s relations with Turkey – although Hollande is considered to be one of the Socialist Party’s most pro-Israel politicians so the continued shenanigans over Israel in NATO forums won’t help matters – but it is not going to be the panacea that permanently puts the Armenian issue to rest in France or mean a fast track victory for Turkey’s EU bid.
Now, as it turns out, the Armenian issue cannot be put to bed so easily. Exactly as he promised he would do during his campaign, Hollande has announced plans to reintroduce a bill criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide. His reason for doing this is pretty simple: there is a large Armenian community in France, and Hollande wants to ensure that he has their votes in the next election. In fact, Hollande is so committed to this issue, it has been reported that he has been exploring means other than legislation, such as an official degree that would penalize Armenian genocide denial, given the fact that a previous iteration of the law was ruled unconstitutional. It is worth remembering that Prime Minister Erdoğan had restored full ties with France following Sarkozy’s defeat on the assumption that this issue was over, and if Hollande indeed pushes for another Armenian genocide bill, I expect that ties will be downgraded once again. On top of the fact that Turkey has suspended formal political ties with the EU during Cyprus’s presidency, it does not appear that Turkey’s EU bid is any better off now than it was when Sarkozy was in office.
This should be a useful reminder of two things. First, domestic politics trumps everything. Hollande cares a lot more about being reelected and pleasing various domestic constituencies than he does keeping Ankara happy. He is more than happy to risk Erdoğan’s wrath on this issue if it means another term down the road in the Élysée Palace. Second, and more importantly for our purposes, it indicates that there is a perception gap between France and the rest of the EU on one side and Turkey on the other over Turkey’s value to the EU. There is a view that has taken hold in Turkey over the past few years, as Turkey’s economy has exploded while Europe’s has tanked and as Turkey has become a more influential global player, that Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. I myself think that Europe stands to benefit greatly from Turkish accession to the EU, but the fact that Hollande is willing to risk another rupture in ties over what seems to be a comparably small domestic political issue suggests that many in Europe do not share this view. Ankara would do well to take heed of this, since bad relations with France and endless fighting over Cyprus only benefit Turkey if Europe as a whole believes that there is something to lose by alienating Turkey. Were I advising Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, I would suggest that they ignore this latest provocation, keep tensions low over the latest Armenian genocide news, and wait to see how things play out. Blowing up at Hollande and France will not accomplish anything in this case, and will demonstrate that Turkey is willing to be more pliable and puts joining the EU at the top of its list of priorities.