If Nicolas Sarkozy loses French presidency, is Turkey the winner?

Analysts say a new French president could boost the European Union application of Turkey, a rising regional power and the biggest economy of the Middle East.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the France president, is trailing Francois Hollande, the socialist candidate after the first round of elections. Mr Sarkozy is deeply unpopular in Turkey after rejecting Ankara's bid to join the European Union, and his determination to have parliament in Paris enact a law that would make it a crime to deny that Turks committed genocide against Armenians in 1915.
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ISTANBUL // A defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election in France could boost the European Union application of Turkey, a rising regional power and the biggest economy of the Middle East, some analysts say.

On Sunday, Mr Sarkozy, the incumbent president and one of Europe's most powerful Turkey sceptics, lost the first round of voting to his socialist challenger Francois Hollande. The two face off in a second vote on May 6.

The government in Ankara yesterday declined to comment on possible consequences of the French vote on bilateral or EU relations, with one diplomat saying it was too early to predict an outcome. But some Turkish analysts said the vote could have far-reaching consequences.

Turkish-French relations have been in crisis for years because of Mr Sarkozy's rejection of Ankara's bid to join the EU and his determination to have parliament in Paris enact a law that would make it a crime to deny that Turks committed genocide against Armenians in 1915. That law was declared unconstitutional in February.

The French president's decision to block five of the 34 sections, so-called chapters, in Ankara's EU membership talks is one of the reasons Turkey's accession process has stalled.

Mr Sarkozy is profoundly unpopular in Turkey.

The question for Turkey is what sort of changes, if any, a post-Sarkozy era would bring.

Cengiz Aktar, head of EU studies at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said he expected a better era to begin under Mr Hollande. "A socialist administration would lift the veto on the five chapters" of Turkey's EU membership talks now blocked by the Sarkozy government in Brussels, Mr Aktar said in an interview yesterday. "That will greatly ease the tense relations."

Mr Aktar noted that French socialists were not adamantly opposed to Turkey's EU membership application and said Mr Hollande was likely to unblock the five EU chapters, even before the summer after an election victory in May. France says it has blocked the five chapters - economic and monetary policy, agricultural policy, regional policy, financial and budgetary provisions as well as a chapter on institutions - because talks about them would give Turkey a perspective of full EU membership. Mr Sarkozy says he is willing to negotiate closer ties between Ankara and the EU, under a concept called "privileged partnership", but does not accept talks that would mean Turkey, the only Muslim EU candidate, can expect to become a full EU member.

Ioannis N Grigoriadis, a political scientist from Greece who teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, also said a government change in France was likely to have positive effects.

"The Sarkozy presidency has invested a lot in the opposition to Turkey's membership bid," Mr Grigoriadis said. He said Mr Sarkozy had made it clear that he was opposed to Turkey's accession and would bring Turkey's EU accession to a referendum, even if Ankara fulfilled all the necessary criteria. It's a position France had not taken towards any other EU candidate.

"I don't think Hollande would repeat all that," Mr Grigoriadis said, adding he expected an improvement in relations under Mr Hollande, even though it would be difficult to restore the level of trust the two countries enjoyed under Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy's predecessor, in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Mr Grigoriadis stressed that while Turkey was also partly to blame for the standstill in its EU accession bid, a victory of Mr Hollande "may herald a new era in Turkish-EU relations". He said that to achieve a breakthrough, opinion makers in France should differentiate between the highly emotional question of Muslim immigration to their country and Turkey's EU negotiations. "They should decouple the immigration issue from Turkey's candidacy," he said.

Mr Aktar said improved Turkish-French relations would also make it easier for Turkey to deal with regional crises such as the one in Syria. "France is definitely a player in Syria, so better relations would also help in a post-Assad cooperation," Mr Aktar said.

Turkey, a Muslim country with a secular republican system, is a political and economic powerhouse in the region and regards itself as a model state for the countries that have shaken off dictatorships during the Arab Spring.

Last year, Turkish-French tensions flared when France led a campaign of air strikes against Libya's leader Col Muammar Qaddafi at a time when Turkish diplomats were trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the crisis. Mr Sarkozy's government made a point of not inviting Turkey to a meeting discussing foreign intervention in Libya.

Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist at the Milliyet newspaper, said he doubted that things would change dramatically under Mr Hollande. "It will not automatically get better," Mr Idiz said in an interview.

The socialist politician was "also playing the populist game", reflecting "a pathological approach towards Turkey by the French collectively", Mr Idiz said. He noted that Mr Hollande had supported Mr Sarkozy's draft for the Armenian genocide law, a project vehemently opposed by Turkey.

Mr Sarkozy's antipathy towards Turkey is legendary.

In one incident in 2009, reported by US diplomats and made public by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, Mr Sarkozy's advisers told pilots of the French presidential plane to change course over Paris so that Mr Sarkozy would not see the Eiffel Tower, which was lit up in the Turkish national colours in honour of a visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister.