Reactions to this possibility can be easily heard, not only from the Turkish public but throughout Europe. Opinion-makers all over the continent point to the timing of this decision and how it dovetails with upcoming elections in France, noting that it is clearly aimed at capturing the votes of the nearly 300,000 ethnic Armenians living in France. Some Turkish commentators assert that Sarkozy wants to see Turkey isolated within the greater framework of the EU, Mediterranean and Middle East and cut off at the pass its precipitous rise in these regions. We, on the other hand, assert that, more than all of the above, Sarkozy's real aim is related to the election campaign -- not just to the hundreds of thousands of potential Armenian voters but rather to the millions of Jean-Marie Le Pen supporters that reside in France. After touching on why the problem is not one of France-Turkey, let us talk about “Turkey as campaign material.”
France is not only one of Turkey's most important trading partners; Turkey is also one of the most influential countries in which the French business world makes investments. The political and economic benefits shared by these countries are, in fact, vital. Policies which affect both North Africa and the Middle East bring together the interests of both Turkey and France, even if there are some details which differ from place to place. Both France and Turkey would emerge as the countries most benefitting from peace, democracy, and economic development and betterment in the Mediterranean region. In this region, where crises are so common, French diplomacy is smart enough to know that close cooperation with Turkey is required in this region. Thus, we can say that French diplomacy is as clever as both British and German diplomacy. We can extend this, our thesis, to general EU policy. Turkey is a unique country whose potential EU membership would really open up the EU to the Mediterranean. And so France, if it wishes to see EU resources channeled toward Mediterranean projects, really must support Turkey's EU membership. That is why ex-French President Jacques Chirac, despite vociferous opposition from his own party, lent his support to Turkish accession talks, dropping the decisions taken against Turkish membership from his party's agenda at the general congress led by Sarkozy on Feb. 26, 2005. And in fact, close advisors to Sarkozy do not think differently. It is, no doubt, within this framework that the search for dialogue during French foreign minister Alain Juppe's most recent visit to Turkey took place. Which is why it is most realistic to seek the answers to this French stance, which tramples so many shared interests, in the framework of French national politics and election strategy rather than anywhere else.
Let us take a close look at the coming elections and the influential voter masses, after first talking about why the Armenian voting bloc is actually not a very active factor in the larger framework of France.
By its numbers and sociological makeup, the Armenian voting bloc in France is not actually a decisive one. It is said that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 ethnic Armenian voters in France. Even if we were to say that these numbers, which we find exaggerated, are true, we are still talking about a 1-percent voting block. And if we assume the Armenian voters in France, who are very well mixed into French society in general, as basing their votes not only on “Turkey policy” but also on economic, social and other political considerations, it would not be incorrect to think that Armenian voters casting their votes for Sarkozy, for reasons that go beyond the genocide bill, make up a small bloc. No doubt Sarkozy is aware of these realities. The fact that this recent decision in parliament received the support of all political groups represented shows Armenians are influential in every spectrum of politics. But to sum it up, Sarkozy is actually reaching out, not only to this voting bloc but to the entire Le Pen voting bloc, whose far-right numbers can range from between 10 percent to 20 percent of all votes in France.
The two rounds of voting for the French president generally wind up seeing votes divided between the right and the left. In the presidential election in which Chirac was elected president for the second time, in 2002, Le Pen took 16.86 percent of the vote, and Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin took 16.18 percent of the vote, “competing” with Chirac in the second round. With the support of the left, Chirac was elected with nearly 82.21 percent of the vote, making him the final right-wing politician to cooperate so much with the left. As for Sarkozy, he brought to an end the “shared policies” with the left in order to not neglect the votes of the extreme right after Le Pen's electoral victories and decided at the same time to take this voting bloc into his sights for an election strategy of his own. Le Pen's ability to make it to the second round of voting was influential in Sarkozy's decision, as was the fact that Le Pen made his way into the European Parliament and has been influential in French politics since 1984; his numbers in French presidential elections have been 14.38 percent in 1988 and 15 percent in 1995; and he successfully made it to the second round of voting in 2002.
If we think about the fact that just a few months ago, Le Pen's daughter, Marie Le Pen, could be seen standing in front of Sarkozy at drilling sites, we note the general importance of this political stream is clearly continuing. Theoretically, Sarkozy could be eliminated, as Jospin was, in the first round of voting, and the right vote could be split between some powerful candidates on that side, and the economic crisis in France could deepen. For this reason, we can say that Sarkozy has clearly put the Le Pen effect at the center of his own election strategies, as he is allowing the elections five years ago to shape his course now.
Turkey's potential accession to the EU is not today even really an influential topic on the agenda but was a topic of great importance in the elections five years ago. Though it is a topic with ties to dialogue that spouts fear of foreigners and racism, it is not limited to these areas.
Sarkozy has managed, with his “Turkey policy,” not only to squeeze Le Pen on his own electoral front but also to provide voters with an alternative to Le Pen by shouldering the very policies spouted by Le Pen. In a sense, Sarkozy's use of his “Turkey policy” has allowed him to appeal to Le Pen voters without having to use rhetoric. No doubt Sarkozy has also reached voting blocs that respond to Philippe de Villiers, whose rhetoric normally appeals to far-right Catholics, stressing the religious differences between Turkey and France. It is thought that votes cast for de Villiers will be around 5 percent. The Le Pen voting bloc would be one which will have to be won over not only in the first round but also in the second. Just as this bloc might not even go to the ballot boxes in the second round, it could also go to the leftist candidate. To sum it up, Sarkozy succeeded in appealing to the Le Pen voters with his “Turkey policy” without having to even use any direct racist rhetoric in the 2007 elections, pulling 31.18 percent (in the second round 53.06 percent) of the vote, with Le Pen votes in the first round at 10.44 percent. Just as it would not be wrong to think that these coming elections will see a repeat of this strategy, we could also say that the “Turkey policy” spouted by Sarkozy has in the meantime become more attractive, in light of the Arab Spring, the economic crisis in France and also the visible rise of Turkey.
The second phenomenon that deserves some thought here is what the “Turkey policy” means for the middle layer of voters in France and for ethnically North African voters. The tough rhetoric heard from Sarkozy when he was a government minister meant that he had problems with voters in the middle, as well as immigrant voters. Which is why he has subsequently tried to appeal to voters in these groups with the message “I have changed,” and he has tried not to use openly anti-immigrant rhetoric. And so the Sarkozy strategy of using his “Turkey policy,” which does not directly target Arab and Muslims, appeals not only to Le Pen voting bloc, but also leaves the door open for potential immigrant votes, these votes of course becoming increasingly important within the general framework of France. After his previous electoral success, Sarkozy appointed both ethnic African and Arab ministers, and thus tried initiatives aimed at these voting blocs, which were at least partially successful. If it appears that Sarkozy is really targeting the Le Pen bloc for votes, he could experience serious problems with the middle and immigrant groups of voters.
Hrant Dink himself sensed that these ongoing debates in France had less to do with Armenians than with Turkey itself and opposed them violently, as he saw they worked to satisfy influential anti-Turkishness in the Armenian diaspora, as well as tapping into racist instincts. There was a second very important phenomenon at hand for Hrant, who asserted that he would be the first to head to Paris to deny the genocide; as we have also witnessed in recent days, Hrant too saw that, in fact, the French parliamentary decision would not make debates over Turkey easier, but rather more difficult.
Hrant died suddenly, too young to have written his own legacy. If Turkey wants to take the legacy left behind by Hrant seriously, it must debate the history and pains experienced by the Armenians. But these debates do not need to occur within the framework of personal relations with Armenia, and not with France at all, but within its own public and institutions. The “İttihat Terakki” – or Union and Progress Party, which was in power in Turkey from 1908 to 1923 -- drove out and killed and ignored the killing of hundreds of thousands (whether it was 300 or 800 or 1.5 million really doesn't change the crime, and Hrant said it was 1 million) Armenians who were guilty of nothing other than belonging to this group of people, giving as a reason the fact that some few thousand Armenian nationalists had betrayed the Ottomans. In almost every talk I ever heard Hrant give, he would say, “What we say is not what was important; let us look at the realities of history and at its perspectives.” Does not everything we have experienced in modern-day Turkey, from Ergenekon to the killing of Hrant, show us that the spirits sown by Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha are still influential? Without removing the masks from those killers who are still among us, Turkey cannot live with its own history and people in peace. The sensitivity shown by the prime minister on the matter of Dersim can win people over and soothe wounds; it is this that can make Turkey great, not denials. Which is why the answer to Sarkozy and France's active Islamophobia, anti-Turkishness and racism can actually be found in Turkey's own debates over its history.
Let me finish up by pointing to a second result in relations between Turkey and France. In the coming five months, Sarkozy will experience success or failure to the extent on which he provokes talk of the “Turkey policy” and on which he delivers anti-Turkey EU membership messages. In fact, if he manages to transform the problem from a Sarkozy-centered problem into a France-Turkey problem and appears to be a president who is simply defending his nation's values, he will have won. After all, some economic losses and “temporary tension” with Turkey are a bill which he can afford to pay, especially if they mean victory at the ballot box. Which is why Turkey needs to highlight the fact that the problem is not with France but with Sarkozy, and it finds worrisome the anti-Turkish hostilities being spouted as such. This message needs to be delivered in particular to the middle layer of French voters. We need a policy that works not with an aggressive and high-pitched voice and which takes economic damage to France -- and thus Turkey -- in its sights, but rather a policy that embraces France and works to isolate Sarkozy. It needs to be a clever policy. Turning Sarkozy into something that equals France only works to “run water into Sarkozy's own mill.” There may be no President Sarkozy if immigrant voters are aware when they head to the ballot boxes. And with no President Sarkozy in power, this means five full years for French-Turkish relations, as well as for Turkey's own EU accession process.
*Ali Yurttagül is a political advisor for the Greens in the European Parliament.