Macron and Erdogan have a delicate lunch at the Elysée

Turkish president Erdogan an awkward guest for the French president

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, is welcomed by French president Emmanuel Macron, at the Elysée Palace. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, is welcomed by French president Emmanuel Macron, at the Elysée Palace. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP


French president Emmanuel Macron performed a delicate balancing act at a press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after they lunched at the Élysée Palace on Friday.

Thriving trade relations and close co-operation against the Islamic State terror group brought France and Turkey together. But these were strangely disconnected from Turkey’s worsening human rights record and its frozen application for EU membership.

In advance of the visit, at least seven French human rights groups and political parties demanded that Macron protest against Mr Erdogan’s detention of some 50,000 people accused of links with the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in the US.

Mr Erdogan accuses Mr Gülen of mounting an attempted coup in July 2016. More than 140,000 Turkish civil servants have been sacked for the same reason. About 100 journalists are among the prisoners.

Mr Macron said they discussed charges against academics and students at the University of Galatasaray, which was cofounded by France, and the specific cases of politicians, NGOs and journalists.

The two leaders expressed radically different views on freedom of expression. “Terrorism doesn’t happen on its own,” Mr Erdogan said. “There are also gardeners of terrorism. They are considered men of thought. They write in their newspaper columns. They bring grist to the mill. They are the ideologues of terrorism.”

Asked what he thought of the “gardeners of terrorism,” Macron replied that “freedom of expression is whole. It cannot be divided. It is characteristic of the rule of law. The fight against terrorism is against people who destroy, who kill ... But to express an opinion, if it is not incitement, if it is not intended to destroy others or expound terrorist theories, then it is an opinion and it must be free. The freedom of opinion, of expression and conscience is absolute.”

No ‘real reasons’

Regarding EU accession, Mr Erdogan complained bitterly that Turkey “has spent 54 years in the waiting room of Europe. When I ask why, the EU is incapable of giving me real reasons,” he said, insinuating that Turkey has been kept out of Europe because it is Muslim. His nation was “seriously fatigued” by the process, he added.

The presence of 3½ million Syrian refugees is a great burden, Mr Erdogan continued. “Turkey has spent $30 billion on Syrian refugees,” he said. “The EU promised us help. We have not received it. They say it will come. We received only €900 million. The UNHCR has not given a lot of money either, only $600 million.”

French relations with Ankara are better than those of other leading EU powers. Poland and Greece were until Friday the only EU countries visited by Mr Erdogan since the failed coup. Last spring he denounced the “Nazi practices” of German leaders who forbade his cabinet ministers from campaigning among immigrants to Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel said in September that she wants to stop accession negotiations with Turkey.

Mr Macron came very close to doing the same. “The EU has not always treated Turkey well. It led [Turkey] to believe things were possible when they weren’t,” he said.

EU ‘hypocrisy’

At present, when “doubts have set in” regarding Turkey’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, it is “obvious” that things “are not going in the direction of rapprochement with the EU”, Mr Macron said. Alluding to EU “hypocrisy,” he added: “I would be lying and wasting time if I said we might open new chapters [of negotiations] ... We should be clear... and rethink this relationship not as a process of integration but perhaps as one of co-operation or a partnership that would tether Turkey to Europe.”  

The two leaders began by emphasising their excellent relations on trade, which they would like to increase from €13.4 billion to €20 billion annually. New agreements were signed on Friday on missiles manufactured by a Franco-Italian consortium, Airbuses for Turkish airlines, and the export of French agricultural products.

They agreed, too, on the necessity of fighting Islamic State. Mr Macron pleased Erdogan by labelling the Kurdish separatist group PKK “terrorists”.

Things started to come unstuck when Mr Erdogan reacted angrily to a French journalist who asked how Turkey could be credible in the fight against terrorism when it had given jihadists weapons and access to Syria. “The US sent 4,000 truckloads of weapons to Syria!” Erdogan exclaimed. “Why don’t you ask the US?”

The western-led coalition against Islamic State has used Kurds as proxies in northern Syria. Mr Erdogan called the Syrian Kurds of the PYD and YPG “annexes of the PKK ... Our friends in Nato continue sending tons of weapons to [Syrian Kurds].”