Emmanuel Macron has stepped up his rhetoric against Turkey once again, after a period of relatively calmer ties between Paris and Ankara, warning against any attempts to interfere in next year’s French presidential elections.
Macron told France 5 television that he had noted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted to improve relations, which have been battered by disputes over the conflicts on Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkish accusations of Islamophobia in France.
But while Macron insisted that Europe would never turn its back on Turkey, he said that improving relations would be difficult unless Ankara’s behaviour changed.
“There will be attempts at interference in the next [French] presidential elections” in 2022, Macron said.
“I consider this to be unacceptable. It’s written down – the threats are not veiled.”
France heads to a presidential election next year which is expected to see Macron challenged by the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a repeat scenario of the 2017 vote.
Macron said such interference would take the form of “playing on public opinion” as he lashed out at Turkey for what he called a distortion of his comments on Islam last October.
Then, the French leader described Islam as a religion in “crisis” globally as he attempted to boost support for his controversial separatism bill – comments that led to mass protests and calls for a boycott on French products across the Muslim world.
The French government says the bill is aimed at strengthening the country’s secular values and rooting out religious “extremism, but critics claim it will give the state unlimited power over all Muslims and Muslim institutions”.
Muslims were also concerned last year as French officials, including Macron, reiterated their support for the right to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
The debate had followed a gruesome attack near Paris in which a teacher who had shown his class the caricatures was beheaded in broad daylight.
“Very clearly last autumn there was a politics of lies,” Macron said. “Lies of the state, lies spread by media controlled by the Turkish state, spread by certain large channels controlled by Qatar,” he said, ostensibly a reference to the Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera.
Macron, who last year told Al Jazeera that he understood why Muslims were shocked over the cartoons, said he had raised his worries about the media with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
“My comments were falsified and France was presented as a country with a problem with Islam,” he said.
At the time of publishing, Turkish officials had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
‘We cannot re-engage when there are ambiguities’
The relationship between Macron and Erdogan hit a low last year when the Turkish leader said his French counterpart needed “mental checks” as tensions rose over the separatism bill.
Erdogan in December then expressed hope that France would “get rid of” Macron as soon as possible, describing the president as “trouble” for the country.
The Turkish leader has taken a softer tone towards France and the European Union this year, but Macron indicated much more was needed.
“I have noted since the start of the year a desire by President Erdogan to re-engage. I want to believe that this path is possible,” he said.
“But we cannot re-engage when there are ambiguities. I do not want to re-engage with a better relationship when there are such manoeuvres.”
Macron said France would never give in to “blackmail” but acknowledged Europe had to work with Ankara on migration policy, with Turkey hosting millions of Syrian refugees.
“If one day we say we are not working and discussing with them any more, they will open their doors and you will have three million Syrian refugees in Europe,” he said.
The French president reaffirmed his belief that “we need to clarify” the behaviour of Turkey within NATO, and was particularly critical of its actions in the conflict in Libya.
“Turkey did not keep its word, it sent foreign fighters, it sent its army [into Libya]. I am applying a lot of pressure so that we now have a withdrawal,” he said.