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Macron’s Turkish Gambit

The French president’s war of words with Erdoğan is more than just political theater. It’s part of a larger campaign to crack NATO that should alarm the United States.

Michael Doran
Peter Rough
December 01, 2020
Christian Hartmann/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Emmanuel Macron talks to the media as he leaves Downing Street in London after attending talks with Britain's prime minister ahead of the NATO alliance summit, on Dec. 3, 2019Christian Hartmann/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Christian Hartmann/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Emmanuel Macron talks to the media as he leaves Downing Street in London after attending talks with Britain's prime minister ahead of the NATO alliance summit, on Dec. 3, 2019Christian Hartmann/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The president of Turkey is worried about the psychological health of the president of France. “Macron needs some sort of mental treatment,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said. “What else is there to say about a head of state who doesn’t believe in the freedom of religion and behaves this way against the millions of people of different faiths living in his own country?”

Erdoğan was referring to Macron’s struggle against “Islamist separatism,” a campaign designed to strip “foreign influences” from Islam in France. Macron launched the campaign On October 2 in response to a string of horrific terror attacks, which were soon followed by the beheading of Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history teacher, in a Parisian suburb. In a major speech, Macron proposed, among other steps, regulating mosques, prohibiting home schooling, and requiring Islamic religious leaders to be certified in France. Macron’s critics have decried the proposals as an infringement on the civil liberties of Muslims—and Erdoğan’s insult endorsed those criticisms.

Yet the dispute between the two leaders was much broader than the question of French policy towards its Muslim minority. For well over a year Macron has presented himself on the international stage as Erdoğan’s nemesis, warning foreign counterparts of the Turkish leader’s Islamism, and strongly criticizing or flat-out opposing Turkey’s major foreign policy moves—in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Azerbaijani-Armenian war, to name just three. Against this background, Erdoğan’s insult served only to burnish a brand that the French president has long cultivated.

Indeed, Macron’s feud with Erdoğan is a centerpiece of a grand strategy, one that knits together his main domestic, intra-European, and international policies. In recent months, Americans, both inside and outside of government, have expressed sympathy for Macron’s anti-Turkish agenda while seeing French policy toward Muslims as a radical attempt to insert the state into religious matters. It seems to us that these critics have it mostly backwards: While Macron’s domestic policy may be an entirely legitimate attempt to address a set of problems that are unique to France, his foreign strategy is a startling power grab that does not comport in key respects with the national security interests of the United States.

Some critics have belittled Macron’s campaign against radical foreign influence in French mosques and schools as an effort to steal a march on Marine Le Pen and her populist party, National Rally. Le Pen looms large in presidential polls, and has made counterterrorism, opposition to immigration, and hostility to Islam core aspects of her brand. Macron’s political survival requires arresting the flow of voters from the political center, which he inhabits, to the far right, before the next presidential election in 2022. Yet while such electioneering is certainly at play, this analysis diminishes the historical significance of Macron’s campaign, which represents a bold and determined effort to address the historic failure of the French state to integrate Muslim immigrant populations.

Contrary to popular belief, the French state, not radical Islam, is the primary architect of the “separatism” that Macron is now seeking to dismantle. When France first opened its door to “migrants” from North Africa during the economic boom of the 1960s, everyone involved assumed that the arriving Moroccans and Algerians were not going to become a permanent part of French society. They were coming only temporarily, for work, and when their contracts doing construction and other menial physical work were over they would return home. Paris was happy for home governments of these temporary migrants to export imams and Islamic educational assistance to France, fully aware that the religious networks of Morocco and Algeria were thoroughly penetrated by the secret police of those countries—which in turn were happy to report troublemakers to the French.

But in life there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. The workers never left France, and while the most talented and ambitious among their children integrated into wider French society, the least resourceful remained in a no man’s land, neither fully French nor fully North African. The 1990s and 2000s brought a decline in economic opportunity, and a new influx of refugees from war ravaged countries such as Algeria, who exported to France the traumas and scars of their homelands as well as their political pathologies—which now included Islamic radicalism.

Under the presidencies of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French state swept a growing problem under the rug, as it continued to farm out the religious life of French Muslims to foreign governments, even turning, in addition to Morocco and Algeria, to Saudi Arabia, which distributed largess in return for being granted a piece of France’s Islamic cultural and educational life. The result was the condemning of a growing number of French-born citizens of mainly North African descent to lives in cultural ghettos funded and often administered by emissaries of foreign institutions and governments.

By contrast, Macron is seeking to open an entirely new chapter in the French Muslim story, hitting Islamic radicals with an iron fist while simultaneously preparing the soil that will allow an authentically French Muslim identity to bloom in this new generation. But what does any of this have to do with Turkey? Very little—which is precisely why the feud with Erdoğan is so useful.

Attacking Turkey allows Macron to compete patriotically with Le Pen’s chauvinism while still maintaining his credentials as a cosmopolitan centrist. It does so by moving his struggle against “Islamist separatism” away from religious bigotry and into the realm of national defense. “Faced with these multiple provocations from Mr. Erdoğan … I defend the president of the Republic,” Marine Le Pen said recently, tacitly conceding that Macron had hit his target.

But courting Le Pen supporters is tricky business because it risks alienating the sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants who have integrated more or less happily into French society. Here again, feuding with Erdoğan is helpful. The Muslims of France hail primarily from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world—not, that is, from Turkey. While trading barbs with Erdoğan sends a strong signal of hostility to Islamism, it avoids offending the ethnic sensibilities of, say, Arabs and Berbers. Meanwhile, it attracts Armenians and Kurds, whose French diasporas are, respectively, the largest and second largest in Europe.

In intra-European affairs, Macron’s anti-Turkey posture helps France contend with the economic colossus that is Germany. With the British having exited the European Union (EU), and with the United States increasingly distant from European affairs, the historical Franco-German rivalry is reasserting itself. To be sure, the partnership of Paris and Berlin as the twin guardians of European unity, and the weakness of the German military, ensure that the rivalry remains muted, but it is nonetheless alive.

And it is growing. Macron is building a Mediterranean coalition within the EU that can help France counterbalance Germany, and he has identified Greece as the primary candidate for membership. For starters, Greco-German relations are still recovering from the Greek sovereign debt crisis last decade. Moreover, Germany, for structural reasons, is incapable of offering Greece satisfactory support against Turkey in the conflict over the Eastern Mediterranean. Unlike France, Germany is not a Mediterranean power, and it has a small navy. It also relies on Turkey to keep Arab refugees at bay, a major German domestic and foreign policy priority. And finally, Berlin remains wary of offending Erdoğan, who enjoys high popularity among the many millions of Germans who are of Turkish origin or descent.

Unencumbered by these constraints, France is free to pose as Athens’ European champion, supporting Greece’s maximalist claims against Turkey. In internal EU debates, Macron has called for imposing economic sanctions on Turkey—a proposal that Germany has resisted so far—and he has dispatched naval forces to the Mediterranean to defend Greek claims. In recent weeks, Paris has also reportedly threatened to challenge the EU’s customs union with Turkey, an important economic link for Germany.

In the short term, Macron is calling for a European force that will defend against the supposed Turkish threat. But in the long term, the French president’s goal is grander still.

Macron is similarly exploiting the Mediterranean conflict to call American leadership into question. Washington approaches the Greco-Turkish dispute as a squabble between friends, and it seeks to mediate. Despite serious tensions with the Erdoğan government over a host of issues, Washington continues to see Turkey as a natural counterbalance to Russia and Iran, and it therefore will not join France in championing maximalist Greek claims in the Mediterranean dispute. This constraint on the United States thus offers Macron an opportunity to score points against the Americans in Athens, just as he scores points against the Germans—but with one major difference.

Greece is a member of the European Union, and Turkey is not. This distinction offers Macron an opening to go before his European counterparts and argue that the reluctance of America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to support Greece points to a major deficiency in the security architecture of Europe. And of course, Macron has a remedy for this deficiency: “Strategic autonomy” for Europe—the idea of creating a European army that is independent of NATO and the United States.

The direct connection between Macron’s anti-Turkey campaign and his concept of “strategic autonomy” first became explicit in November 2019, when the French president told the Economist that we were witnessing the “brain death” of NATO. The alliance, he explained, had expired not just because of the “instability of our American partner,” but also because of the failure of the United States to stand up forcefully to Turkey. At that moment, Turkish behavior in Syria, not in the Mediterranean, was the justification Macron proffered for an independent European military. “You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake. There has been no NATO planning, nor any coordination,” he said. NATO’s brain-dead status led to an obvious conclusion: “Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability.”

In the short term, Macron is calling for a European force that will defend against the supposed Turkish threat. But in the long term, the French president’s goal is grander still. An autonomous European force, he explained in a recent interview, will create a third pole in global affairs, becoming a counterbalance to “the Chinese-American duopoly.” Given France’s strategic culture and military power, Macron views Paris as the natural leader of such a pole.

Et voilà! We arrive at the central goals of Macron’s anti-Turkey campaign: to replace NATO and to detach Europe from the United States.

In truth, the chances that Macron will achieve these goals are small, if only because Berlin rejects them. “The idea of Europe’s strategic autonomy goes too far if it fosters the illusion that we can guarantee security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and the U.S.,” German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a major address on Nov. 17. “Without America’s nuclear and conventional capabilities, Germany and Europe cannot protect themselves. Those are the plain facts.”

They certainly are plain, but they do not deter Macron. He calculates that the pursuit of even unattainable goals will generate tangible benefits for France. In addition to the political advantages that we have already mentioned, it will generate significant economic investments in French industries. France’s opposition to Turkey plays well in Israel and the Gulf, especially among the Saudis and Emiratis, whose fear of Erdoğan runs deep. When Mohammed bin Salman visited Paris in 2018, a Saudi airline signed a $6.3 billion deal to purchase engines for 80 new aircraft supplied by Airbus, and Saudi Aramco entered into a $5 billion agreement with the French energy giant Total SA to build a petrochemical facility in the Saudi city of Jubail. Macron no doubt calculates that his anti-Turkey campaign will generate more such deals.

Most importantly, the quest for European “strategic autonomy” has the effect of channeling some EU and German investment to French industries. In the November 2019 Economist interview, Macron explained that, as soon as he took office, he teamed up with his German neighbors to launch “two major projects: The tank and the aircraft of the future.” Since then, Macron has been the driving force behind the pooling of European defense investments. Convincing a demilitarized Germany to subsidize a French military buildup is clever. One can’t but admire the sheer audacity of the gambit.

But in Washington the key test of European defense concepts should be whether they contribute to the containment of Russia and Iran—and Macron’s campaign fails in both respects. Nothing highlights this failure better than the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, where France took positions critical of Azerbaijan—partly to court the Armenian vote, but also in order to paint Turkey, Azerbaijan’s patron, as a pariah. In the South Caucasus, there are only three major powers: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. If Turkish power decreases, Russian and Iranian power increases. This is an iron law of political physics.

Much to Macron’s credit, he does not deny that his concepts benefit Russia. Indeed, an explicit aspect of his “strategic autonomy” is a new “European partnership” with Moscow, which will supposedly result in pulling Russia away from China and toward Europe. Already, France is cooperating conspicuously with Russia in a host of areas. In the Russian Arctic, the France’s Total has teamed up with the Russian natural gas producer Novatek on a liquefied natural gas (LNG) development deal. And in Libya, too, France has aligning with Russia (not to mention the UAE and Saudi Arabia) in support of the warlord Khalifa Haftar.

An especially notable example of cooperation is taking shape in Lebanon, where Macron is teaming up with the Russians and the Italians to develop Lebanese gas resources. Through this Lebanese project, Macron surely aims to rope Italy into his emerging Mediterranean bloc. But in the process, he is also transforming France and Italy into the de facto partners of Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, which dominates the Lebanese political system.

No wonder then, that France has repeatedly rejected American and Israeli calls to ban Hezbollah from France and from the EU more broadly. France’s budding economic partnership with Russia and Iran thus prevents Macron, the would-be opponent of Islamism, from challenging an Islamist terror group that has 150,000 rockets and missiles trained on Israeli population centers, and that has a long history of drug smuggling in Europe, to name just two of its many unappetizing qualities.

This koshering of Tehran and Moscow fits hand in glove with Macron’s strategy of building a Mediterranean coalition. Historically, Russia and Iran have found the countries of Southern Europe among the most welcoming of them, economically, and the least threatened by them, militarily. Nor is the koshering entirely objectionable to Germany. True, Berlin does not agree with Macron’s proposal to dismantle NATO, but it is a strong advocate of economic intercourse with Tehran and Moscow, which the Trump administration has stymied through its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, and its efforts to block the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an $11 billion infrastructure project that would bring Russian natural gas directly to Germany.

In return for tolerating some of France’s more unrealistic defense concepts, Germany therefore receives French support for economic engagement of Russia and Iran. The net effect of this dynamic is to pull Europe, as a whole, further away from the United States—and toward Russia and Iran.

At first blush, Macron’s ideas appear to offer answers for the West to difficult and unfamiliar problems that have arisen very rapidly. But this appearance is an illusion. While France was a great power in the past, and it has retained the facility to impersonate one in the present, it is in fact a medium-size power pursuing parochial interests.

Macron’s strategy may turn out to be a boon to his personal political career, and beneficial for France, but it should alarm the United States. On the roster of American adversaries, only China outranks Russia and Iran—and all three powers have shown the ability and inclination at times to work in concert. Any idea that undermines the containment of them is a bad idea. Any strategy that aims to weaken or dismantle NATO is even worse. Any strategy that in the long term pulls Europe toward Russia, Iran, and China and away from the United States threatens disaster for the West.

Despite what Erdoğan says, Macron’s mental health appears to be perfectly sound. The same cannot be said, however, of the Americans who follow his lead. Macron makes a show of attacking Turkey, but the American-led order in Europe is his true target.

Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

Peter Rough, the former director of research in the office of George W. Bush, is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.