What’s behind the Erdogan-Macron spat?

While the immediate trigger was the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and Macron’s push to “reform” Islam, there is a larger geopolitical context to the rising tensions between Turkey and France.

The story so far: Relations between France and Turkey, two NATO members, hit a new low this month after Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a personal attack on his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron following the latter’s call for reforming Islam. Last week, France recalled its Ambassador from Turkey, for the first time, and Ankara called for a boycott of French goods. Several other Muslim countries, including Pakistan, voiced protests against Mr. Macron.

What triggered the latest tensions?

Turkey and France have clashed over a number of geopolitical issues in recent years. The trigger for the latest clash was the French government’s support for Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine whose office was attacked by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in January 2015 over its publication of a set of caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, to republish the cartoons. Ankara, under Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, has projected itself as a defender of (selective) Muslims causes worldwide, and had slammed Mr. Macron earlier over his push to “reform” Islam in France.

On October 16, Samuel Paty, a middle school history teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb of Paris, was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee after he showed his students caricatures of the Prophet in a class on free speech. Following Paty’s murder, the French government started an operation to crack down on Islamist organisations, and President Macron, a strong defender of French secularism (laicite) and the freedom of speech, stated that Islam was in need of an “enlightenment”. While paying homage to Paty, government buildings in several cities displayed the caricatures of the Prophet. While the French response triggered criticism in Muslim countries, Mr. Erdogan launched the sharpest attack on Mr. Macron, saying he “needs mental treatment”. In response, France recalled its Ambassador from Turkey.

What’s Macron’s reform plan?

In early October, Mr. Macron outlined the substance of a long-awaited law which his government is planning to introduce to regulate the practice of Islam in France. In September, after Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons when the trial of the suspected 14 accomplices of the terrorists who attacked the magazine office in 2015 and killed 12 journalists began, Mr. Macron had defended blasphemy, saying “the right to caricature is an essential part of being French”. On October 3, while unveiling the essence of the Bill, which the government plans to formally present in December, the President said the law was being brought in to fight “Islamist separatism”, which is a “conscious, theorised, politico-religious project that materialises through repeated deviations from the values of the republic and which often result in the creation of a counter-society”. It will crack down on foreign influence in French Muslim communities (the country’s largest religious minority) and allow the government to track funding for mosques from overseas. The government will also create a certificate programme for the imams and ban homeschooling.

Who supports whom?

While Mr. Macron is trying to sell his push for reform as an antidote to the growing Islamist violence in France (the country saw some 36 terrorist attacks in the past eight years that killed hundreds), many of his critics see the French President taking the battle against terrorism to Islam—something which the French far-right already does openly. This offers an opportunity for leaders like Mr. Erdogan, the votaries of political Islam, to attack the “hypocrisy” of the West in dealing with Islam. Mr. Erdogan’s call to boycott French goods gained support in several Muslim-majority countries. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan accused Mr. Macron of “attacking Islam”. Bangladesh saw a demonstration of thousands against the French government and Mr. Macron. Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Turkey, joined hands with it in rejecting “any attempt to link Islam with terrorism”. On the other side, the U.K. and EU leaders offered support to Mr. Macron. India, which enjoys close defence and strategic partnership with France, issued a statement on Wednesday, condemning the personal attacks against Mr. Macron. “We strongly deplore the personal attacks in unacceptable language on President Emmanuel Macron in violation of the most basic standards of international discourse,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in the statement.

Is there a geopolitical angle?

While the immediate trigger was the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and Mr. Macron’s push to “reform” Islam, there is a larger geopolitical context to the rising tensions between Turkey and France. As Turkey, under Mr. Erdogan, is trying to expand its influence to the erstwhile Ottoman territories, France has stood in its way. In Libya, where Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based internationally-recognised government, France has supported the Tobruk-based parallel government and the military campaign of the renegade General Khalifa Haftar against Tripoli. In the Eastern Mediterranean region, Turkey has launched a gas exploration mission, clashing with Greece and Cyprus, while France threw its weight behind the fellow EU members and even sent French warships to the region. In the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey offered unconditional support to the Azeri military offensive, while Mr. Macron slammed Ankara’s “reckless and dangerous” intervention. In all these cases, France and Turkey emerged as two opposing poles in the West and the East, respectively. While France, the EU’s most powerful military, is trying to assert itself under Mr. Macron’s leadership, Mr. Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy is ready to pick up fights wherever it sees an opening. It was against this background, the cartoon controversy sent tensions soaring.

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