Challenges in French-Turkish Relations from Chirac to Sarkozy

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

January 28, 2008

Paper prepared for the National Defense University Conference “Turkey – EU Relations: How Wide is the Gap?” held on December 6, 2007 and revised on January 28, 2008.


While former French President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) was in favor of Turkey’s entrance into the EU, the election, in May 2007, of Nicolas Sarkozy, who had long declared himself in favor of association rather than accession, led to renewed tension between France and Turkey. This came in the context of a bilateral relationship already strained by a number of substantial issues dating back to 2001 at least, that included the official recognition of the Armenian genocide, and the possible criminalization of its negation under French laws; the disagreement over the judicial treatment of PKK activists; the Cyprus dispute; and the ESDP (European Security and Defense Policy) issue. As a result, Ankara and Paris now face a multifaceted diplomatic challenge to get their relationship on a better track.

Trade is certainly one of the reasons many urge Paris and Ankara to improve their strained relationship. Exchanges between France and Turkey have grown by a factor of five in the last ten years and have reached almost 10 billion € (around 14.5 billion $ at current exchange rates). France is now the 5th largest exporter to Turkey (with a market share of 4.8%), and the 4th largest investor in the country. Likewise, relative to other countries, in the last few years Turkey has rapidly gained market share in France, as it has moved from the 22nd to the 17th rank of largest exporters to France. This intense French-Turkish relationship is not limited to trade. For example, France ranks third among the destinations where young Turks go study abroad, and cultural exchanges are flourishing.

This paper will first explore in detail the various sources of opposition to Turkey’s accession into the EU among the French public, followed by an analysis of Nicolas Sarkozy’s position before and after his election. Ankara’s reaction to the new French stance has been negative, as was to be expected. But this reaction cannot be understood separately from an older cause of dispute, the official recognition of the Armenian genocide by the French National Assembly, which has elicited reprisals from Turkey since 2001. The paper will then take a brief look at the other causes for dispute and will make sincere attempts to conclude on a positive note.