French Macron vs Turkish Erdogan: Clash of Personalities, Ambitions or Civilizations?

The French government has called for a crackdown on “radical Islam” following the beheading of a history teacher for showing Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of Prophet Mohammad and now the beheading of a woman and others in Nice.

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French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to fight “Islamist separatism” while defending controversial cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad.

His defense for free speech and secular values did not go well with the Islamic world, resulting in protests and boycott of French products by countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait Iraq, Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Qatar, but Turkey has been leading the charge.

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went beyond condemning the caricatures and said that Macron needs a mental health checkup along with accusing him of anti-Islamic agenda.

But the tensions between the two countries have further escalated after a front-page illustration published by the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo showed Erdogan lounging in his underwear, pulling up the skirt of a woman wearing a hijab to reveal her bottom.

The cartoon likely aimed to provoke Erdogan worked, as he accused Macron of being against Muslims and sowing seeds of hatred.

“Turkey will take necessary legal, diplomatic actions against ‘loathsome’ Charlie Hebdo publication,” he said. Meanwhile, Paris has recalled its ambassador to Ankara and asked its nationals in Islamic countries to avoid public gatherings.

But the clash between France and Turkey is not limited to caricatures and Islamophobia as tensions between two countries are on the boil in major hotspots such as Libya where both nations support different factions in the civil war.

The conflict has also emerged in the eastern Mediterranean, where France doesn’t have a border, but its support to Greece for energy exploration has resulted in Turkey threatening war in the region.

The escalated tensions in the Mediterranean in the past two months have sparked the fear of a potential war. In August, a day after the EU member states decided to sanction Turkey in case Ankara does not withdraw its naval forces from the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish foreign affairs minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, “If Greece expands its maritime borders in the Aegean Sea, this will be a cause of war”.

Amid these hostilities, France has lent support to Athens and ensured delivery of Rafale fighter jets by 2022 under Greece’s robust arms purchase program. After calls for sanction on Ankara, Macron had said he will not fall into the trap of the escalating powers in the region.

He was quoted by Politico as saying: “The difficulty of those who defend a pluralist path is not to fall into the trap of the escalation of powers; it’s the trap I don’t want to fall into and I won’t fall into, including in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

An expert in Turkish foreign policy Sinan Ulgen told NBC News that the conflict between Erdogan and Macron remains as much a clash of personalities and ambitions as a clash of civilizations. Both the NATO members are far from resolving the conflict and their differences have become more complicated with the recent developments.

While Ankara attempts to become a major regional power, Paris is trying to become a dominant player in the Mediterranean region, “taking opportunities to fill geopolitical gaps on the world stage”.

Ulgen says: “Given that we are indeed witnessing an escalation and that this can have no real positive outcome from the perspective of international relations, both of them are moved rather by calculations that relate to their domestic political concerns”. Both Macron and Erdogan are set to face re-election in 2022 and 2023.

Islamic Radicalism on Rise?

While France has braced itself to fight against “Islamic radicalism”, Thursday witnessed another terror attack in which three people were killed in the French city of Nice. One elderly woman was beheaded and a man was reportedly struck several times in the throat at the heart of the Notre-Dame basilica.

Nice’s mayor, Christian Estrosi said the attacker had repeatedly shouted the phrase “Allahu Akbar” or God is greatest, even after he was detained by police after being shot at.

Estrosi said in a series of tweets: “It’s time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory.”

Meanwhile, condolences and condemnations are pouring from the international community. Germany, Netherlands, Vatican, and even Turkey were some nations to quickly condemned the Nice Attack and expressed solidarity with the French people.

The French prime minister has said that the country will be introducing vigipirate (France’s national security alert system) counter-terrorism plan.

Indian PM Narendra Modi tweeted, “Our deepest condolences to the families of the victims and the people of France. India stands with France in the fight against terrorism.”

In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, state television reported that a Saudi man had been arrested in the Red Sea city of Jeddah after attacking and injuring a guard at the French consulate there.