France and Turkey: Trial of strength in the Mediterranean

France Turkey Erdogan Macron

At the moment, the signs point to a relaxation in the skirmish between France and Turkey.

After a phone call between French President Emanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last Tuesday, which lasted more than an hour, Paris said they welcomed the willingness of Greece and Turkey to talk about their differences and a dialogue between the EU and Turkey that respects the interests of both sides.

There has not been so much diplomatic composure between the two self-confident and power-conscious presidents for a long time. In fact, Erdoğan and Macron have not given each other any antagonizing verbal exchanges lately.

Conflicting Claims

The French president sees himself - traditionally - as a power of order in the Mediterranean, and from the Parisian point of view, Turkey's "Great Ottoman demeanorm" and Erdoğan's aggressive rhetoric irritated Macron to the extreme. While Erdoğan accused Macron of "incompetence" and "colonial behavior," the French president said more recently that Turkey is "no longer a partner".

The list of disputes between Ankara and Paris is long: In addition to the dispute over the gas drilling off the coast of Cyprus, it is about the increasing attempts to influence the Turkish religious authority in France, it is about Erdoğan's military action against the Kurds in Syria, and last but not least, it is an issue about controversial interests in Libya. Macron supports General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar and Erdoğan the internationally recognized government.

Suspicions and red flags

The situation escalated in mid-August after a dangerous confrontation between several Turkish and a French frigates in the Mediterranean Sea. The French frigate "Courbet" was detected by a Turkish fire control radar - usually the preliminary stage to an attack. The French had wanted to inspect a suspicious ship that was suspected of transporting unauthorized military equipment to Libya. Because, as it has been said in French military circles for some time, Turkey is repeatedly undermining the arms embargo against Libya and is bringing military material into the country across the Mediterranean.

After the incident, Macron first sent an angry tweet and then two Rafale fighter jets and the frigate "La Fayette" into the eastern Mediterranean. The Elysée Palace is convinced that this is the only language Erdoğan understands. Berlin looked with concern at the worsening conflict between two NATO partners. Merkel intervened on both sides.

Meanwhile, Macron had uncompromisingly sided with Greece in the dispute over the gas deposits in the Mediterranean. That too was registered with frowns in Berlin. The fact that France is taking sides for Greece should not least have solid economic motives: This year, a €2 billion deal is to be concluded with the heavily indebted Greece for the purchase of 18 French Rafale fighter jets. A long-term arms partnership in the naval sector has also been initiated.

After Merkel and Macron had crunched again and again on foreign policy issues, efforts have been made again at least since the last EU summit to get the much-cited Franco-German engine running again. Also with a view to the smoldering conflict in the Mediterranean.

German-French division of roles

"Good cop - bad cop": That is the division of roles between Merkel and Macron, said a French diplomat. The Mediterranean is a scene of many European and international conflicts. The French political scientist Bruno Tertrais becomes clearer. He said: "There are national, political differences - and personal ones"  - meaning between Merkel and Macron. "France is always quicker than Germany to want to take a leadership role in central strategic issues, especially when it comes to military issues," said Tertrais.

That means, France is more willing than Germany to hit the table with its fist, and if necessary with an armored one. The public reluctance of Berlin towards Erdogan and his aggressive course in the Mediterranean was often taken as a quiet step in France - possibly out of consideration for the three million people of Turkish origin in Germany.

Tertrais does not believe that the conflict between Erdoğan and Macron will be resolved after the phone call this week, because the Turkish president is generally pursuing a "tense" and "expansive strategy".

In Paris, they think, "to be continued..."

The views expressed by the author does not necessarily reflect those of Greek City Times.

Sabine Rau is a correspondent for ARD television studio in Paris. Her article first appeared in Tages Schau.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor