With its warplanes recently on exercise over Cyprus, while its warships patrol with the Greek navy, France is now more militarily active in the Eastern Mediterranean than it has been for generations.
At the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron has been in Beirut, issuing instructions on the formation of a new Lebanon. Meanwhile, Paris continues to be active in the Libyan crisis, unofficially supporting the unofficial administration based in Tobruk.
France has also been a major mover in the formation of regional alliances and forums –
including the Defence Cooperation agreement with Cyprus and a quadripartite arrangement with Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.
All of these moves stem from a growing sense of alarm in Paris – with one country in particular setting off the alert.
“Turkey’s agenda is problematic now,” Macron said at a regional forum in Lugano late August. “While six months ago some people said that only France blames Turkey for various things, now everyone sees that there is a problem.”
Indeed, Paris is now taking the leading role in a confrontation with Ankara that ranges from North Africa to northern Lebanon, and from Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to the Muslim communities of mainland France itself.
That range of places also demonstrates the range of issues behind the current clash.
“It is both an ideological conflict and a strategic one,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, Director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels, told the Cyprus Mail.
After a series of jihadi terrorist attacks in France in recent years, Paris has become extremely sensitive to radicalisation amongst its own large Muslim population.
In February this year, Macron therefore announced a new strategy against what he described as “Islamic separatism” in France. In particular, this would “fight foreign influence”.
One major source of that external interference, Paris argues, is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Islamist Turkey.
“Macron has criticised Turkey for involvement in French Islam,” Emmanuel Dupuy, President of the Institute for European Perspective and Security (IPSE) in Paris, told the Cyprus Mail. “Of course, other countries too, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are doing this, but Turkey is making a broad offensive in Europe to use Islam as an instrument of foreign policy.”
Turkey has also been willing to use refugees and migrants as instruments of that policy, as witnessed by February’s clashes at the Greek-Turkish frontier. “This aggravated Macron particularly,” adds Dupuy, “as France had been very active behind the EU deal to pay Ankara to keep refugees in Turkey.”
At the same time, “There is a sense in Paris that Turkey poses a wider strategic threat to French and European interests across the Mediterranean,” says Barnes-Dacey.
In Libya, France unofficially backs the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, which have been fighting for the Tobruk administration of Aguila Saleh.
Yet, Turkey’s security and maritime pact with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli – and their subsequent defeat of Haftar’s forces – showed “France had backed the wrong horse,” Federica Saini Fasanotti, Libya expert and non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institute, told Cyprus Mail.
Meanwhile, there is a concern that this growing Turkish success in Libya also unhinges French influence in neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria.
Both are former French colonies, although going back even further, they were also part of Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire.
At the same time, further south, in the region known as the Sahel – also historically a French sphere of influence and colonial rule – Turkey is also increasingly a challenger.
“Turkey has opened 26 embassies in Africa in the last five years,” says Dupuy. “Turkish President Erdogan has had an Africa policy for some years, now, as all big powers do.”
A further front is further east, in northern Syria and Iraq. There, France has traditionally had close ties with the Kurds, who have also been increasingly under attack by Turkish forces.
“Many here see the Kurds in northern Syria and the Kurdish administration in Northern Iraq as strong allies,” says Dupuy, “showing why France is very strong in backing an anti-Turkish agenda.”
On top of all this, too, there is the Eastern Mediterranean.
France, via oil and gas giant Total, has been involved in Greece’s offshore oil and gas exploration since 2017 and Cyprus’ since 2018.
“France very much doesn’t want Turkey sailing around in this very important part of the Mediterranean,” says Fasanotti.
France is also increasingly concerned by growing Turkish influence in Lebanon.
“This is one reason for Macron’s urgency in visiting Beirut after the explosion,” says Dupuy, “as there is a perception in Paris of increasing Turkish influence, in the north of Lebanon in particular.”
This is also taking place in what many perceive as a growing power vacuum, as the region’s traditional policeman – the US – pulls back.
“For the next six months or so,” says Dupuy, “with the US presidential elections, the US will perhaps not be able to offer a robust foreign policy in the region. So, there is a window of opportunity for others.”
Diplomacy, at the moment, has fallen largely to Germany, as EU term-president and as the European country with perhaps the most influence in Ankara.
Yet, Europe is a very divided house. France’s attitude towards Turkey is by no means a popular one amongst all EU or NATO members.
“There is a sense of European frustration with the manner in which France is prepared to drive an escalation with Turkey while other states, led by Germany, are looking for de-escalation,” Barnes-Dacey adds.
The danger for France, too, is that, “Germany is pushing France as the bad cop, while Germany is the good cop,” says Dupuy, “so France may end up digging itself into a hole.”
As for the UK, which has often partnered France before in the Mediterranean, “I get the sense that Great Britain is pretty much out of the game, pre-occupied with domestic issues,” says Barnes-Dacey. Meanwhile, “I think that while neither Turkey or France want to risk an actual military confrontation, there is always that risk of an unintentional, accidental incident getting out of control,” he adds.
That incident could occur anywhere across a broad geography, too – raising the risks from this summer’s Franco-Turkish escalation. Thus, “The tension,” continues Barnes-Dacey, “remains potentially very explosive”.
Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist, writer and analyst who has specialised in Eastern Mediterranean affairs for over two decades. He has written on the region for a wide variety of publications, ranging from the Boston Globe to Al Jazeera and Asia Times to Foreign Affairs.