The French debate on enlargement
Louvre. Photo: Alan Grant

France and the Western Balkans

That enlargement has a future has been stressed in Paris at the very beginning of 2008. In an interview with the Financial Times published on 8 January 2008 then French Minister for Europe, Jean Pierre Jouyet, announced that France had :

“We used to believe that a federal Europe was necessary for a more deeply integrated union and that enlargement would counter this and prevent Europe from working effectively. We have now overcome this contradiction. The thing that has most struck me since I took up this job seven months ago is precisely the capacity of an EU of 27 members, and more one day, to take decisions.”

Jouyet, former chief of staff of Commission President Jacques Delors, underlined that France was “not worried about further extending the EU’s borders”. Nor is a majority of the French public worried about enlargement in general. According to a Eurobarometer poll from late 2006 there is in fact a majority in France for the accession of every Western Balkan country.

Before and during the French EU presidency in the second half of 2008, French officials have made strides to assure that France is supporting EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. The presidency in particular wanted to achieve something related to Serbia, the country French foreign policy considers as the key to stability in South Eastern Europe.

While observers were already sceptical about seeing serious engagement in this direction in the run-up to the presidency, the war in Georgia and the economic crisis forced their way onto the top of the French Presidency’s agenda.

Eventually, little happened with regard to the Western Balkans, though – after initial reservations – Montenegro could submit its application for membership to French President Sarkozy in December 2008, and the visa liberalisation process was allowed to gain momentum.

Hardly anyone in the French political elite doubts that the Western Balkan countries will eventually become EU members, but it also nearly everyone agrees that it will not happen anytime soon. These countries are not ready yet, many say. Few see the accession process as a crucial tool to drive reforms, but rather think that the Western Balkan countries need to change considerably before the accession process can start in earnest.

The eventual accession of the Western Balkans is by-and-large perceived as unavoidable; but there is no enthusiasm, and no hurry.

France and Turkey

All this makes the state of the French political debate on Turkey all the more remarkable, as there is clearly no popular support for Turkish accession. In 2004 two-thirds of the French were opposed to Turkish accession in a French opinion survey.[1] In addition, as Anne-Marie Le Gloannec noted in July 2007 “there is currently in France not one major politician supporting Turkey’s entry”.[2]In an interview with ESI in February 2008 she noted that what had previously been a furious debate had largely subsided.[3]  However, even then the basic consensus of the French political elite remained deep scepticism towards any possible accession of Turkey.

Studying the French debate on enlargement raises questions that are unique to France, however. One concerns the relationship and influence of different political actors. It is far from clear, for instance, what the real position of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is on possible Turkish accession. What is clear is that in France’s highly centralised executive system the real power rests in the Elysee Palace and with President Nicholas Sarkozy. Just as  President Chirac had decided early on in favour of Turkish accession, so Sarkozy had opposed it. And yet both had bent their positions in the face of political realities: Chirac responded to the reality of deep scepticism in his own party, the UMP, by proposing a referendum to be held before any eventual accession. And Sarkozy, upon becoming president, chose not to block the negotiations outright as he had earlier promised and even accepted the opening of new negotiation chapters under the French EU presidency in the second half of 2008.

Is then, in the end, the only individual who matters in the French debate on enlargement the French president and perhaps a small circle of his personal advisors in the Presidential Palace? In this case, there would seem to be little point to a deeper study of the structures, institutions and individuals participating in a discussion. In fact, there is some truth to this observation: the President’s advisers are of crucial importance in any French debate on Turkey. Claude Guéant is the General Secretary in the Elysée. He worked with Sarkozy when the latter was Interior Minister and quickly earned his trust. Sarkozy made him cabinet chief in the Ministry of Finance and Economy, though he had not much experience in financial questions. Henri Guaino has the title of “special adviser”. Jean-David Levitte, the chief diplomatic adviser, who was already Chirac’s foreign political adviser, is a very experienced diplomat. He was Ambassador to the UN in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As Ambassador to Washington at the height of Franco-American tensions, he played a crucial role in keeping communication between Washington and Paris going. Understanding the debates within this inner circle is crucial.

However, both analysis of written material (books and articles in the French press on Turkey), as well as a series of interviews by ESI analysts undertaken in 2007 and 2008 in Paris and Brussels suggests that in fact in France public opinion and in particular a wider elite opinion matters. Public opinion matters in France even more in the context of a continued commitment by the political elite – even after constitutional revisions in 2008 – to put a possible accession of Turkey to a popular referendum.

But the strong position of the French president is not the only specificite francaise. The following elements also shape the French debate on Turkey:

  • Similar to the situation in Austria, and different from Germany, the French debate on Turkey has been shaped by the influence of radical and highly vocal minorities, while supporters of Turkish EU accession have largely withdrawn from the debate. This is particularly striking and important when it comes to currently active national politicians. There are of course a number of individuals (such as former Prime Minister Michel Rocard) and institutions (such as Medef) who support much better French relations with Turkey than have existed in recent years, but they have been too silent to affect the bigger picture.
  • The French debate on secularism and relations between religion and the state is peculiar in Europe: and makes many French decision makers suspicious of a Turkey in which, as has been decided by the Turkish Constitutional Court, the leading governing AK Party needs to be punished (even if not outlawed) for its efforts to undermine secularism. There has also long been scepticism among both centre-left and centre-right intellectuals about Turkish society’s support for women and human rights (see the influential book by Sylvie Goulard,Le Grand Turc et la République de Venise)
  • While the debate on Europe itself had heated up in France in 2005 in the context of the Constitutional Treaty debate, there is profound confusion among the French elite (in politics and in the media) about what lessons to draw from this intense debate. This makes members of the elite even more risk averse.
  • In a situation peculiar to France, the question of Turkish-Armenian relations assumes a significantly higher profile in Paris than in other EU capitals. This is a reflection of both the political influence and the electoral weight of the constituency of French Armeniens. While French Turks are considered an “invisible community” by most French observers, French Armenians are very well represented among the French elite. Voters in France who care about the Armenian issue are also concentrated in a number of constituencies, in particular around the largest cities, Paris, Marseilles and Lyon.
  • Despite the heated debate on enlargement and Turkey that took place between 2002 (when former president Valery Giscard d’Estaing warned that it would mean the “end of Europe”) and the election of Sarkozy in 2007 there are still only a very limited number of people who are actually knowledgeable of Turkey in France. French intellectuals or academics interested in Islam or the Mediterranean they are much more likely to focus on North Africa or the Middle East than on Turkey.

And yet, the experience of the past two years in particular also shows that not all is lost, and that French leaders are not only able but also willing to reassess their positions. This has happened when it comes to enlargement in general. It should be encouraging to Turkey that recently French politicians have argued that once the Lisbon Treaty question is sorted out, they would see no principle problem with further enlargement. While they often stress that this means first of all enlargement to the Balkans, and sometimes even to Ukraine or to Moldova, rather than to Turkey, the very fact that enlargement is no longer seen as the bête noire, responsible for Euro-pessimism in France, is an important shift in the debate. As is the fact that policy makers in Paris are increasingly acknowledging that the larger EU does not necessarily work any less efficiently than the EU of 15.

It should also be stressed that an effective Turkish foreign policy, including but not limited to better relations with Armenia, has enormous potential to sway elite opinion in Paris. The French elite remains interested in a stronger Europe de la défense, and Turkey could be seen as an obvious asset. But as Anne-Marie le Gloannec also pointed out to ESI, strategic arguments alone will not be sufficient the transform the debate. This is why communicating a broader vision of a changing Turkey, a Turkey in which religious freedoms, the position of women and human rights improve, and which is a force for stability in its region, remains crucial.

[1] This poll shows French opposition to Turkish accession to be stronger than in either Germany, Spain, France or Italy.

[2] Nathalie Tocci (ed.), Conditionality, Impact and Prejudice in EU-Turkey Relations, July 2007, p. 82.

[3] ESI Interview with Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, February 2008.

23 February 2009