Turkish EU Entry Poses Nagging Problem for Chirac

PARIS (FT/Reuters)–The three-day visit of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Paris has drawn attention to an unusual alignment of the planets in the French political environment.

Jacques Chirac–the French president and an outspoken advocate of Turkish membership of the EU–is out of sync not just with a majority of voters–but with much of the country’s political establishment–including his own center-right UMP party.

After a working lunch on Tuesday with Erdogan–the Elyse said Chirac had reiterated his position that Turkish entry into the EU was "desirable." The president has warned that the road to membership may be 10-15 years long–but has made little attempt to mask what he declares to be his "conviction about Turkey’s European vocation" in domestic self-interest.

"It is an extremely unusual position for President Chirac to find himself in and is seriously explosive," said Eddy Fougier–a research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations.

"The last few elections have shown that French voters are already angry that their concerns are not being taken into account. If the government presses ahead with Turkish membership–it could be very problematic."

The only parties offering qualified support to Turkey are the Socialists and the Greens.

The opposition Socialists support Turkish membership in principle–but party chief Franois Hollande has linked the start of entry talks to Ankara’s recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenia’s by Ottoman forces.

France is home to a significant Armenian population. Pro-Armenian groups were to demonstrate in Paris later on Tuesday against Erdogan’s three-day visit.

It is on the right of the spectrum that Turkish membership poses the greatest concern. The UMP governing majority in April came out categorically against starting negotiations–with Alain Jupp–Chirac’s closest ally and outgoing chairman–warning that Turkish membership would "fundamentally change the nature of the EU."

For the moment the differences between the president and his party are being brushed aside–with Jupp simply saying: "Lui–c’est lui. Moi–c’est moi," (He has his opinions–I have mine)–but that defense may be hard to sustain.

The real test of Chirac’s convictions–however–will come in December when EU leaders decide whether to open membership talks with Ankara–a candidate since 1999.

The timing could not be more awkward for the French government. Turkey is likely to loom large over the newly pledged referendum on the European constitution–slated to be held late next year. The last 20 polls in France–the EU country most hostile to enlargement–show around 60 per cent consistently opposing Turkish membership. "People are extremely interested in the question and know what they think," Fougier said.

"They worry about Islam and fear immigration. They have not warmed to enlargement since May 1 and show every sign of rejecting Turkey too."

One senior UK diplomat says he has little doubt that President Chirac will stick to his support for Turkish membership. "France will not block the opening of membership negotiations with Turkey when the council meets in December–but will probably want to delay starting talks until after it has held its referendum on the constitution in the second half of next year," he said.

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