Turkey-France rivalry: what's behind Paris and Ankara's war of words?

Tensions between Ankara and Paris have heightened in recent weeks as officials trade barbs over Libya and Syria

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 27, 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President Emmanuel Macron attend a conference as part of a summit called to attempt to find a lasting political solution to the civil war in Syria which has claimed in excess of 350 000 lives, at Vahdettin Mansion in Istanbul. The French government will summon the Turkish envoy in Paris for talks after what it termed "insults" by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused Emmanuel Macron of suffering "brain death", the president's office said on November 29, 2019. / AFP / OZAN KOSE
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A war of words between Turkey and France focusing on the Libyan conflict has raised wider concerns about the potential damage to Nato and the role of foreign powers in the fractured north African state.

Tensions between Ankara and Paris heightened in recent weeks as French and Turkish officials traded barbs over their countries’ roles in Libya, where the Nato allies support opposing sides.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday described Turkey’s support for the Tripoli government as “criminal for a country which claims to be a Nato member”. He also criticised Ankara for fuelling the war by importing Syrian militias.

In an earlier exchange, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused France of seeking to divide the country in order to “go back to old colonial times”.

Karol Wasilewski, head of the Middle East and Africa programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said Turkey and France were divided by different security concerns in Libya, as well as Syria.

“These different threat perceptions between France and Turkey are a huge challenge for Nato, and not only because now we have the two allies looking at each other as rivals,” he said, adding that France “apparently considers Turkey to be a bigger threat to Nato than Russia”.

France, Russia and Egypt support the eastern-based forces while Turkey, Qatar and Italy back Tripoli.

Ankara-based political analyst Ali Bakeer said Turkey enjoyed broad support in Nato amid fears of Russian encroachment in Africa.

“I don’t think Nato will go along with France on this matter because of the Russia threat,” he said.

Emre Kursat Kaya, a security analyst for the Centre for Economics and Policy Studies in Istanbul, said economic and strategic interests lay at the heart of the split.

“In recent years, Turkey increased its footprint in sub-Saharan Africa through both soft and hard power,” he said. “Paris sees sub-Saharan Africa as its influence zone and sees the Turkish presence through a negative lens.”

The fall-out over Libya widened as France demanded EU talks on Turkey’s long-standing aspirations to join the bloc, with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling for a “comprehensive” discussion on the relationship.

Nato, meanwhile, is investigating an incident earlier this month in which Turkish warships allegedly prevented a French frigate from inspecting a Turkish merchant ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya.

The dispute over Libya follows France’s criticism of the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria in October that saw Turkish forces target Kurdish forces that had combated ISIS.

Franco-Turkish animosity also emerged earlier this year when Mr Macron announced plans to curb foreign influence among France’s large Muslim population. He said Turkey had been the only country not to agree to the plan to stem “separatism” emanating from mosques and language schools.

France has objected to Turkey’s gas exploration missions in the eastern Mediterranean, alongside the EU, Egypt and Israel.

From Turkey’s perspective, frayed relations with Paris can be traced to the aftermath of the First World War, when France was among the powers that attempted to carve up the territory of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

In another twist, last week Turkey’s pro-government Sabah newspaper reported an investigation into a French spy ring, claiming the ring’s leader had undergone training in France.

Resolving the differences between Paris and Ankara will require mediation by another Nato ally, probably Germany or Italy, according to analysts.

“The tensions are too overt and deep to be self-resolved,” Mr Kaya said. “There are too many divergent subjects and the current governments do not show any sign of smoothing their tones.”