By Konstantinos Apostolou-Katsaros*
A major geopolitical reshuffle is underway in the wake of AUKUS. Although France seemed to be the state most affected, the consequences are profound in a global scale. The United States shifted their geostrategic center of gravity to East, in order to tackle the Chinese expansionism. This made all EU eyes turn as they come to terms with the loss of primacy in the dusk of the old Eurocentric western security architecture. An interesting point of discussion refers to whether the UK was aware of this development hence decided to press on with BREXIT with the intention to participate in AUKUS free of European “burdens” and “backwaters”.
NATO’s significance is also diminished and an emerging new alliance amongst the USA, UK, Australia, India and Japan in the Indo-Pacific is underway. In this respect NATO itself is in the eye of the storm, whereas France’s reaction is aiming to counterbalance the US’ shift.
The reflexive proposal for an EU army is also unsettling for NATO’s consistency since it is not clear how it will operate in case EU leaders have diverging opinions from that of North Atlantic Alliance.
An additional NATO headache is the intrinsic inhomogeneity and the conflicting interests of its members. Major players such as Germany, Spain and Italy have geopolitical and geoeconomic ties with Turkey which oppose to the newly-formed Franco-Greek strategic partnership as analyzed presently.
AUKUS in the context of NATO
Evidently France is distressed primarily with the US regarding AUKUS — since it never trusted the UK anyway. In September 2021, France’s TotalEnergies signed a $27 billion oil, gas and solar deal in Iraq and some analysts say that AUKUS is retribution for that.
This golden Franco-Iraqi agreement may have accelerated AUKUS, but it is certainly not the reason the US pushed for it. The events of Afghanistan may have forced swift action to draw public opinion away.
France’s squabble with the US is not a current affair and has already been expressed as unease with the American paternalistic attitude towards NATO.
Back in November 2019, President Macron warned that Trump’s decision to act unilaterally and withdraw American troops from Syria — abandoning the Kurds — indicated that the US is less committed to upholding mutual defense agreements within the NATO alliance.
“What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” he said and noted, “I don’t know (whether Article Five remains in effect),” referring to the collective defense agreement, finally raising a doubt on “what will Article Five mean tomorrow?” In retrospect, who can criticize him after the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan and the AUKUS debacle?
Deteriorating Franco-Turkish relations
Moreover, France is faced with escalating tensions with other NATO members such as Turkey.
The recent verbal altercations between President Erdoğan and President Macron are indicative of a deeper geopolitical rivalry between Paris and Ankara over Syria, Libya, former French colonies in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
When President Macron commented on “Islamist separatism” in response to the inhuman beheading of Samuel Paty outside a school in a Parisian suburb on October 16, 2020, he received fierce criticism by Turkish President Erdoğan.
“What is the problem of this person, called Macron, with Islam and Muslims? …What else can be said to a head of state who does not understand freedom of belief and who behaves in this way to millions of people living in his country who are members of a different faith?” said Erdoğan during an AKP party meeting.
The French presidency reacted hours later saying, “Excess and rudeness are not a method… We are not accepting insults… We demand Erdoğan change his policy, which is dangerous in all aspects.” France then recalled its ambassador to Turkey after Erdoğan questioned Macron’s mental state.
On December 4, 2020 after provocative prayers at Hagia Sophia, Erdoğan continued his criticism, saying “Macron is trouble for France. With Macron, France is going through a very, very dangerous period. I hope France will get rid of Macron as soon as possible.”
A year earlier — in November 2019 — Turkey also accused President Macron of being a “sponsor of terrorism” after France hosted an official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The Turkish commotion
As a matter of fact, Turkey is bulling France and every other NATO ally — especially Greece — that resists its neo-Ottoman hegemonic ambitions, blatantly disregarding its obligations against the North Atlantic Alliance.
Turkey’s foreign policy flip-flops between the West and Eurasia are well documented. Every time the pressure rises with its western allies, Turkey runs to Russia’s hug, threatening to buy more Russian-made weapons.
Russia, on the other hand, lures Turkey in an effort to crack NATO’s unity, and although this works — for the time being — in favor of Turkey, it overlooks the long-term adverse effect on Turkey’s trustworthiness.
It also underestimates the “coziness” of the Russian bear hug that may eventually strangle its ambitions; especially if Turkey falls out of NATO’s protective umbrella or if NATO loses its coherence and will to support its members under the collective defense Article Five as President Macron clearly warned.
Normalizing the tense relations between Macron and his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan is not foreseeable in the near future, even though some efforts have been made.
Macron’s advisor Gilles Kepel said on September 2021 that Macron-Erdoğan relations are on the low, but they must pretend.
A report published on May 6, 2021 by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) notes that “normalization of Franco-Turkish relations is unrealistic in the short term, especially as ‘Macron vs Erdoğan’ is a fight both leaders want ahead of elections in their countries.”
The same report also mentioned that “the political rift between Paris and Ankara is gradually turning into a long-term geopolitical rivalry, where France acts as a ‘keeper’ and defender of European leadership, in particular in the Mediterranean, and Turkey as a rising middle power determined to challenge the current order.”
Religious and cultural conflict
France’s social issues with its own Islamic communities are an additional key matter that affects Franco-Turkish relations since Erdoğan sees himself as an advocate of Islamist rights (sole protector of Islam and Muslims).
The Turks manipulate their diaspora throughout Europe as a foreign policy tool and invest substantial resources both on government and nongovernmental organizations to further their agenda.
The French government is aware of that and is not afraid to voice fears of possible Turkish meddling in the national elections of 2022. After all, Erdoğan back in 2017 was also accused of interfering in a German election.
It is therefore safe to say that the Turks pose a threat not only in French foreign policy, but in their democracy and social stability too, bearing in mind the already tense situation with the spread of radical Islam in the country.
The African bone of contention
Accumulating tensions between Turkey and France have also been mounting over Africa, thus inevitably portrayed in the Mediterranean as well. As Professor of Geopolitics Kostas Grivas explained, France has a large presence and significant geopolitical interests in Africa.
France’s strategic depth is in Africa, incorporating more than the Francophone states. The Mediterranean connects France with Africa and it is in its best interest to maintain control of it; Greece and the Republic of Cyprus act as key states in such endeavor, as explained further on. “If France loses Africa, France is nothing” counters Nathalie Yamb, adviser to Ivory Coast’s Freedom and Democracy Party (LIDER).
Over the past two decades, Turkey has made major economic and diplomatic investments to gain influence on African continent. This has taken various forms; Turkey has military presence in the Horn of Africa, namely Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Erdoğan even adopted a populist rhetoric towards Africans emphasizing that Turkey is not interested in seizing natural resources as other “colonial powers”. He specifically said during a visit to Gabon: “Africa belongs to the Africans; we are not here for your gold.”
France-Greece alliance vs. Turkey
France knows too well that losing Africa would mean downscaling to a medium-sized European state overshadowed by Germany.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the French are actively involved in the Eastern Mediterranean dispute between Turkey and the two Hellenic states (Greece and the Republic of Cyprus).
France demonstrated unfailing support during the crisis of 2020 when the Turks sent their seismic research vessel Oruç Reis (accompanied by several war ships) to conduct surveys on the Greek continental shelf (as described in UNCLOS) for 82 days(!) in total.
Openly denouncing Turkey’s expansionism and its effort to “steal” the Greek and Cypriot continental shelf and/or exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with the Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) naval doctrine, Macron stated that “France has been very clear. When there were unilateral acts in the eastern Mediterranean, we condemned them with words, and we acted by sending frigates.”
The newly formed Franco-Greek alliance (possibly incorporating the Republic of Cyprus at a later stage) creates a solid geostrategic barrier (containment effort), necessary for Paris to prop up its role in the Mediterranean.
It is in essence a crucial part of its long-term strategy to maintain its status as a great power in the multipolar international system. In this respect, France needs Hellenism and vice versa to deal with the Turkish threat.
Especially since NATO under General Stoltenberg’s leadership has moved from its equidistance policy between Greece and Turkey to a Turkophilic one by downplaying the unprecedented Turkish aggression instead of trying to suppress it.
The France-Greece alliance is further strengthened by the diplomatic blow of AUKUS to France.
Analysts see a relation between AUKUS and the US, giving the green light to Greece to sign a sizable deal with France as part of the rearmament program that modernizes the Hellenic Navy.
This game changer deal includes three Belh@rra frigates (+1 option) with an additional option of three GoWind corvettes (+3 option) on the table. Athens already ordered 18 Rafale fighter jets and Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis announced plans to acquire six more.
Most importantly the Franco-Greek Defense Assistance Agreement signed in Paris includes Article 2, a mutual defense assistance clause in case one of the two countries is attacked on its territory, hence sending a clear message towards Turkey.
The agreement also sets the framework for regular consultations between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries, both on security and defense issues, as well as on regional and international issues, hybrid threats, maritime security, and migration.
Mitsotakis, after signing the agreement at Elysee Palace said: “We have a common vision of an autonomous response capability to the challenges Europe faces.”
On the same lines Macron stressed that “We have a commitment to the independence of Europe.” The two leaders underlined that Sahel, Mediterranean, Middle East and Balkans are areas where joint military action could take place.
-The EU is facing a harsh reality since the existing Eurocentric western security architecture is surpassed by the AUKUS formation.
-NATO unity has also been affected by AUKUS and its members should consider expanding their unilateral defense capabilities.
-A pan-European army may prove to be a useful tool although is not clear how it will operate in case EU leaders have diverging opinions from NATO and the US.
-France has always seen itself as a defender of European western culture, hence limiting Turkey’s regional ambitions and preventing the spread of political Islam is high in its agenda. This undoubtedly affects Franco-Turkish relations irrespective of who will be the next French President.
-There is indication that France may be urged to adopt a proactive role in the Mediterranean on behalf of the West. This is evident after the silent green light to sign the Franco-Greek arms and Defense Assistance Agreement. In order to increase the global credibility of France and Greece they need to deepen their diplomatic and military partnership by filling the void left by the US in the Eastern Mediterranean before Turkey intervenes and lures other states in the region (especially Egypt).
-Privileged access to shooting ranges and training facilities coupled with frequent common military exercises would facilitate the Defense Assistance Agreement by increasing the readiness and level of cooperation between French and Greek army forces.
-Blockage of improper use of Qatari Rafale aircrafts by the Turks is a vital security measure for the Franco-Greek partnership in case of escalating Turkish aggression.
-Reciprocity on the part of Greece in France’s interests (e.g. in Mali and Sahel) is deemed necessary if Greece is to fully benefit from French military assistance when/if needed (Article 18(i) of the Defense Assistance Agreement).
-The Mediterranean is France’s bridge to Africa, thus securing it is of prime importance to its geostrategic and geopolitical national interests, bringing it closer to the two Hellenic states. Efforts should be made to include the Republic of Cyprus in the new France-Greece strategic partnership to contain the Turkish revisionism and the Mavi Vatan doctrine.
-Professor of Economic Geography and Geopolitics Ioannis Mazis has already proposed maintaining a permanent French joint Task Force in the Republic of Cyprus. The distance
between the French Naval Base of Toulon and Crete (Southern Greece) is roughly 1,100 Νm (1.5 days sailing) while from Cyprus it is 1,400 Νm (2 days sailing). Hence permanent French forces in Cyprus would: a) Reduce the deployment cycle. b) Incorporate the Republic of Cyprus is in the strategic partnership. c) Counterbalance the British presence in the island. The UK will certainly oppose to it although France has a unique opportunity and the diplomatic leverage to push for it after the AUKUS. Having a strong presence in the region requires strong measures and France should consider taking on this strategic risk.
-The France-Greece pact is a stepping stone and a starting point. Bilateral investment and industrial collaboration — especially in the defense industry and hydrocarbon exploitation should follow to establish strong geoeconomic ties.
-The newly formed alliance is not a result of French philhellenism; instead it is based on common geostrategic interests needed to be sustained through solid long-term planning and mutual sacrifices. Remissness of either party may turn the Franco-Greek agreement to nothing more than ink on paper.
*Analyst – Consultant. His area of interest is in Foreign Affairs and Greek-Turkish relations. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. from the School of Environment and Technology of Brighton University (UK) where he worked as a Lecturer and Research Associate.