Taking his cue from President Emmanuel Macron’s speech on Islam where the president described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started lending his support for a sweeping boycott of French goods.
With this endorsement, the Turkish president obtained a leading role in the so-called cultural war against France which gained some traction in Arab countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan along with non-Arab nations such as Pakistan.
Ostensibly the crisis is taking place in the context of rising Islamophobia in Europe. It is indeed an increasingly pressing problem documented by international and Turkish think-tanks. But President Erdogan’s main reason for targeting France is not Islamophobia. Thus, this ‘cultural war’ between Turkey and France is not about culture. It is about politics.
There are three main reasons why Erdogan is pursuing this policy. The first two is in the domain of foreign policy. Paris presents an important challenge against Ankara on several foreign policy files that Turkey is actively engaged in. Secondly, by appealing to the anti-Western feelings among the Arab states, President Erdogan also wants to break Turkey’s isolation in the Arab world. There is also a domestic angle, where Erdogan wants to prevent conservative voters of the AK Party to leave by portraying him as the protector of the Muslims internationally.
The pivotal reason among these is that Turkey is trying to score points against France due to a variety of political disputes between the two countries. France and Turkey are at loggerheads in a variety of geopolitical flashpoints. In Libya, France is against the level of Turkish involvement and the military support for the government in Tripoli. In contrast, Paris has close relations with the Benghazi-based rival forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In late May this year, the crisis became so tense that Turkish navy vessels prevented a French frigate to stop a cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya in violation of a UN embargo. Going further, Turkish gunboats targeted the French frigate navy frigate by their fire control radars, which is generally seen as one of the last steps before firing on. As a direct result of the incident, the French navy had suspended its involvement in NATO Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean.
In Syria, the French position has been more supportive of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in their fight against the Islamic State group in Nort and East Syria. In contrast, Turkey’s number one foreign policy objective is to destroy the autonomous administration. President Macron has been very vocal against the Turkish interventions and publicly tried to stop President Donald Trump’s from withdrawing the from the region the US forces, who are working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is pursuing oil and gas exploration within areas that are claimed by Cyprus. French Total is one of the companies active in the region working under the jurisdiction of Greece and Cyprus. Along with Greeks and Cypriots, France is also leading the rhetoric inside Europe against Turkey on that issue.
In Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Paris has been using its position as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group to bring about a ceasefire and countering Turkish diplomatic efforts against Armenia. President Macron has been vocal about his objections against Turkey.
It is against this backdrop that President Erdogan wants to target France, opening another front in the diplomatic battle between the countries.
Moreover, Islamophobia has been one of the main foreign policy talking points of some senior figures in his administration. Although it is a narrow concept which cannot serve as one of the leading foreign policy tools especially vis-à-vis the West, the concept remains a central issue for the Turkish administration, especially because it is useful. The administration refers to the idea very selectively and mainly against the West as Ankara has been almost entirely muted when it comes to the Chinese government’s policies regarding the Muslim Uighur minority even though they have the additional link to Turkey regarding their Turkic origins.
The second reason behind Erdogan’s policy is his desire to break the isolation of Ankara within the Middle East. Turkey, at the moment, Qatar and the UN-recognised Tripoli-based government of Libya are the only two Arab administrations as are allied with Turkey. Any policy issue which will bring Turkey on the same platform with Arab nation-states is a win for Ankara.
Finally, the domestic angle also plays a significant role. The tension allows President Erdogan to maintain his appeal with his conservative voters who might feel increasingly alienated by the government due to economic woes and constant political tension. President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party has been challenged by many fronts, from the nationalism as well as political Islam and conservatism. He needs to continually demonstrate to the conservative constituency that he is best suited to play the role of protector of Muslim’s in Europe.
Whether this boycott will have an impact economically is, yet another question. Since Turkey exports more than it imports from France, Ankara may be hit harder if France responds to the boycott in kind. The economies of the states that are joining the boycott are not large enough to inflict pain on the French economy.
Taken out of this political context, this boycott, by itself, could well be a flash in the pan and may not have a very substantial result. Arab countries involved in the boycott may not be as dedicated as Turkey is targeting France. Ankara’s diplomatic wrestling with Paris is not something that is shared by other countries pursuing the boycott.
Due to the reasons mentioned above, the crisis provides a generally risk-free platform for President Erdogan to score political points regarding, France, the Arab world and the conservative Turkish electorate.
Even if President Erdogan, by way of public diplomacy against France, gets Macron to step back on any of the other geopolitical crises that Paris have with Ankara, then it will be a win for Turkey. Turkey then can change its policy regardless of whether the issues around the so-called cultural war are resolved or not.