Why Turkey should be thankful to Sarkozy?

Although Turkey, both at the level of the state establishment and the people in the street, is happy to say goodbye to Nicolas Sarkozy, the government may not immediately reverse its decision to partially suspend bilateral ties with France, which was made in response to Sarkozy’s obsession with stigmatizing Turks using the Armenian issue.

This is not to say that the Turkish government is unwilling to normalize ties. On the contrary, Ankara will genuinely be looking to use this occasion to break the ice with Paris, which could also relieve the deadlock in Turkey’s EU accession process. But Ankara may choose to wait and see to what degree France’s new president, François Hollande, will insist on delivering on his promise to revive the law criminalizing the denial of Armenians’ claims of genocide, despite the verdict of the French Constitutional Council.

It would be naive to expect Hollande to officially state that he will drop the matter. But a message to Ankara, that this issue will not be a priority, coupled with a clear intent to improve relations with Turkey, might suffice for the Turkish government to ease ties.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a very positive message of congratulation sent from Çankaya, which will be answered with equal warmth. This could be followed by a brief meeting between Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Hollande during the NATO summit in Chicago at the end of May.

So far the messages Hollande is sending leave room for optimism. Following the decision of the Council, Hollande promised to take up the issue of penalizing the denial of Armenian genocide claims, but emphasized that he would not be in a rush. Interestingly, in his statement he also addressed the Turks of France, saying they were wrong to think that the decision was directed against them.

This, according to Turkish and French experts, is the first time a high-level French politician has openly talked about the sensitivities of Turks living in France. For that, we can thank Sarkozy (as well as the Armenian diaspora in France), for it was his last-minute initiative to court Armenian votes that mobilized Turks living in France. Apparently many Turks with French citizenship rushed to their municipalities to register to vote. What’s more, they have also been very active in the Socialist Party ranks, so much so that in the legislative elections set to take place in a month’s time, more Socialist candidates, supported by a Turkish base, are expected to enter Parliament. They will be sensitive to their Turkish electorate, and this will in turn become an additional factor determining Hollande’s stance on the Armenian issue.

Experts believe that it will be legally difficult for Hollande to challenge the decision of the constitutional council. But independent of that issue, the Armenian question will continue to be a headache in Turkish-French relations, because the Armenian Diaspora in France will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1915 tragedy under the the new Socialist government. However, despite the shadow of the Armenian issue there is room for optimism. First, the relationship will be cleared of the hostile rhetoric both sides have been using recently. And second, there is a high probability that Hollande will reverse Sarkozy’s decision to suspend negotiations on five of Turkey’s EU accession chapters. We should note that EU ambassador to Turkey Jean Maurice Ripert is a close friend of Hollande. That said, Turkey should be prepared for more vocal criticism from Paris on fundamental human rights issues.

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