As France and Turkey continue to call out each other’s hegemonic ambitions in the East Mediterranean, tensions mount while signs of a direct military confrontation are scant.
Rabat – With Turkey flexing its regional power muscles in the Eastern Mediterranean and angering rivals such as Greece, France has announced its readiness to increase its military personnel in the strategic region.
In a statement on Thursday, August 13, France’s armed forces ministry announced Paris was concerned with Turkey’s increasing military maneuverings in the East Mediterranean. The statement insisted that France aims to fly to the rescue of Greece in the ongoing tensions with Turkey over waters in the region.
The move, which France said is “temporary,” is set to ramp up Paris’ naval and air presence in some areas it thought Turkey’s exploration vessels had violated. “This military presence aims to reaffirm… France’s attachment to free movement, the security of maritime navigation in the Mediterranean, and international law,” the statement said.
France’s move is a direct response to what Greece has described as Turkey’s “illegal actions” in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tensions have been rife between Turkey and Greece in recent months, ranging from Turkey’s military involvement in the Libyan conflict to its energy explorations in the disputed waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions reached a high on Monday, when a Turkish vessel, Oruc Reis, entered waters claimed by Greece.
Calling out Turkey’s “illegal activities,” the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move constituted a “serious escalation” and called for a European coalition to stand up to Turkey. “Greece will not accept any blackmail. It will defend its sovereign rights,” the ministry said in a statement.
In response, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Wednesday that his country stands with Greece as it withstands Turkish provocations. “Turkey’s unilateral decisions on oil exploration are causing tensions,” Macron said. For his part, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis thanked Macron, calling France “a true friend of Greece.”
Clash of hegemonic ambitions
While France and Turkey are both NATO members, the two countries have noticeably fallen out on a wide range of foreign policy issues in recent months.
In Ankara, observers see France’s “quick” response to Turkey’s moves as the last tantrums of a former colonial power fearing increased Turkish influence in its former vassal states. Turkey has studiously relied on the colonization card to dismiss France’s protestations against its increasing assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere.
Turkey’s response to Macron’s much-feted Beirut visit is a case in point.
After Macron toured Beirut in the aftermath of the city’s tragic blast, promising afflicted Beirutis he would hold the Lebanese political elite to account on their behalf, Turkish officials mocked the French president’s colonial visit.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay likened Macron’s visit to foreign interference. Notably, he pitched the French president as a “spoiled adolescent” desperate to prove himself, afraid of Turkey’s growing dominance in places France has historically considered its backyard.
In France, meanwhile, media present Turkey’s Islamist ruling party and its neo-Ottoman aspirations as dangerous for peace and stability in the East Mediterranean.
French media and policy elites did not react kindly to news of Turkish President Erdogan’s decision to intervene in Libya or transform the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. They unanimously portrayed the Turkish leader as a lethal threat to peace, stability, and democratic consolidation at home and abroad.
As France and Turkey continue to call out each other’s hegemonic or “neo-colonial” ambitions in the East Mediterranean, however, signs of a direct military confrontation are scant.
For now, senior Turkish and French officials limit themselves to painting the opposing camp as “dangerous” and “not to be taken seriously.” Their own camp is, of course, open to “peaceful negotiations.”
But with the Libyan conflict — where the two countries are engaged in a proxy war — on the verge of further escalations, it remains to be seen what France and Turkey have in store for each other.