President Emmanuel Macron ordered French forces to the Eastern Mediterranean to provide military assistance to Greece, raising the stakes in France’s growing regional confrontation against an increasingly assertive Turkey.
France’s latest move in the region follows Mr. Macron’s trip last week to Beirut in the wake of an explosion that devastated the city.
By far the European Union’s strongest military power—and its only nuclear-armed nation—France has become more embroiled in conflicts across the Mediterranean as the U.S. has disengaged from the region in recent years.
In the newest tensions, France is again squaring off against Turkey—a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member and supposed ally—as it is also doing in Syria and Libya.
Mr. Macron’s decision, announced late Wednesday in Greek-language tweets, injects France into a maritime dispute over potential gas and oil fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, which has made claims on what Greece and Cyprus consider their own exclusive economic zones, this week sent the Oruc Reis seismic exploration ship, accompanied by warships, into the contested area. Greece responded by scrambling its own navy.
“The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is alarming. Turkey’s unilateral decisions in matters of oil exploration provoke tensions,” Mr. Macron tweeted after a phone call with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has asked for an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers on the crisis. Mr. Macron said that France and the EU express solidarity with any fellow member whose sovereignty is contested.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country doesn’t aim to stoke tension in the region but would defend its national interests.
“It is not Turkey that raises the tension in the Mediterranean Sea but a Greek mentality that tries to ignore Turkey and the Northern Cyprus Turkish Republic,” he said in a televised speech on Thursday, referring to Turkish claims to the northern part of Cyprus that are generally not recognized internationally. “We don’t have designs on what is their share but we will not let anyone cheat us from what is ours.”
The temporary deployment in Greece will include the La Fayette frigate, which has already conducted a joint exercise with the Greek Navy, the Tonnerre amphibious assault helicopter carrier and two Rafale jet fighters that had been deployed to Cyprus, the French Defense Ministry said Thursday.
Relations between Mr. Macron and Mr. Erdogan have frayed in recent years, particularly after a Turkish naval force off Libya in June came close to attacking a French frigate enforcing a United Nations arms embargo. Later that month, Mr. Macron accused Turkey of “criminal responsibility” in fomenting Libya’s civil war.
“There’s a very quick and profound deterioration of the strategic situation in the Mediterranean at a time when the U.S. no longer desires to provide security for the region,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations, a Paris think tank that advises the government. “This pushes the French Navy to the first line in an area that used to be stabilized, and that now sees a change in the balance of power, particularly to the benefit of an extremely ambitious Turkey.”
Rivalry between France and Turkey in the Mediterranean has deep roots. France’s former colonial territories Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon were all wrested in the 19th and early 20th centuries from the fraying Ottoman Empire. Mr. Erdogan’s muscular foreign policy is fueled by grievances over the supposedly unjust way in which Turkey was truncated following the Ottoman defeat in 1918, and aims to restore Turkish influence in its former domains.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey disputes that Greek islands are entitled to an exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, and last November signed a maritime delimitation agreement with one of two competing Libyan governments that hacked away much of Greece’s zone. This month, Greece and Egypt sealed a rival EEZ delimitation agreement of their own that overlaps with Turkish and Libyan claims.
Days before Wednesday’s announcement by Mr. Macron, France for the first time deployed Rafale jet fighters to help patrol the Cyprus EEZ, under a military cooperation agreement that also provides the French Navy with facilities in the Cypriot port of Limassol. These moves were met with anger in Ankara.
“France is missing its colonialism period, especially in the Mediterranean,” said Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of Turkey’s military intelligence. “France wants to eliminate Turkey from this area because of the natural gas and oil in the Mediterranean region. This is the main reason for the quarrel between Turkey and France.”
A senior French official said that responding to Turkish actions in the Mediterranean should be a priority for the entire EU, and not France alone. “Erdogan fills the void, takes positions, and creates situations of fait accompli that appear dangerous to us. It’s a problem of strategic stability in the immediate surroundings of the EU,” the official said. “Everyone has the same need, which is, first of all, not to be subjected to Erdogan’s blackmail.”
It isn’t Turkey’s actual military strength in the region that is increasing, the French official said, but Ankara’s appetite for risk. “Turkey is using the means that others don’t permit themselves. Nobody else has such an aggressive military posture,” he said.
French officials fear Turkey’s active role in the civil war in Libya, where it has shipped thousands of Syrian militants, gives Mr. Erdogan the ability to unleash a flood of migrants to the EU from an additional direction. Through Libya, Turkey can also affect the stability of the neighboring Sahel region, where France has deployed 5,100 troops to combat Islamic extremists. Those extremists killed six French aid workers in Niger on Sunday.
Turkey’s influence is also on the rise in Lebanon, especially among the working-class Sunni Muslims in the country’s north. Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay and its foreign minister arrived in Beirut the day after Mr. Macron’s visit, promising reconstruction aid and offering Turkish citizenship to those Lebanese who claim Turkish ancestry.
“We see an enthusiastic love of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey. This is love based not on interests but rather a reciprocal feeling—a feeling of a family that lived together for 400 years,” Mr. Oktay said in Beirut.
Turkey’s sway in Lebanon isn’t as strong as that of France, which established Lebanon as a separate state 100 years ago.
“For the Lebanese, France remains the motherland,” said prominent Lebanese lawmaker Alain Aoun, a nephew of the country’s president. “Macron’s visit broke the international embargo, the isolation that we were feeling in Lebanon. He came here as the spokesman for the international community, not just as the president of France. And he brought both a carrot and a stick.”
Mr. Macron, who was mobbed by well-wishers on the streets of Beirut, pressed Lebanese politicians to form a more accountable government while also kick-starting an international aid effort to rebuild the city.
While the aftermath of the blast, which killed more than 160 people and rendered as many as 300,000 homeless, offers Mr. Macron a window of opportunity to reshape Lebanese politics and leave a mark on the region, there are also significant risks.
With its growing commitments, France runs the danger of overextending itself, cautioned François Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris who advised Mr. Macron’s presidential campaign on defense and national security matters.
“We are trying to juggle the Libyan ball, we are trying to juggle the Eastern Mediterranean ball, we are trying to juggle the Lebanese ball, and in the meantime we also have this flare-up in Niger,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “There are simply too many balls in the air.”