Two video clips did the rounds in the French media at the weekend. One went global, that of the heart-warming heroism of Mamoudou Gassama, a migrant who rescued a small boy dangling from a balcony in Paris; the other, being more feel-fear than feel-good, didn’t capture the world’s attention in quite the same way. This film was shot in the south of France, in a suburb of Avignon, and showed a group of men surrounding a newspaper kiosk. They were there to protest at a large poster advertising the latest edition of the current affairs magazine, Le Point, the front cover of which was adorned with a photograph of the Turkish president Recep Erdogan under the headline ‘The Dictator’.
Initially the vendor refused to remove the poster on the grounds of press freedom, but when the mob threatened to burn down the kiosk, he relented. Le Point insisted the next day that the poster be reinstated, and it was, with a police guard. In reporting the story, the magazine described how it had been subjected to a lengthy smear campaign, including alleged bullying, insults and anti-Semitic abuse, because of its report about Erdogan’s presidency. A Franco-Turk NGO called Cojep – the Council for Justice, Equality and Peace – has also piled in, issuing a statement accusing Le Point of “irresponsible and hostile journalism” against a man who it describes as “the Nelson Mandela of the 21st Century”.
There is growing concern in France that Erdogan is working hard to become the dominant influence among the country’s estimated six million Muslims, of whom approximately 620,000 are of Turkish origin. Although only 250 of France’s 2500 mosques are Turkish, Erdogan is encouraged in his plan by the accession last summer of Ahmet Ogras to the head of the CFCM, the French Council of the Muslim Faith. Established in 2003 to enhance relations between France and its Muslim population, the CFCM has traditionally had presidents of North African origin. Ogras is the first Franco-Turk to occupy the post and his political ties to Erdogan stretch back more than a decade.
French Muslims of Algerian and Moroccan origin are reportedly working to bring Ogras’s two-year presidency to a premature end and the government is also said to be “ill at ease with the presence of a pro-Erdogan figure” at the head of the organisation. Significantly, last year Emmanuel Macron was present at the breaking of a fast during Ramadan as the guest of the CFCM but he hasn’t responded to a similar invitation this month. The fact that Erdogan is also manoeuvring to increase Turkey’s religious and economic influence in Algeria is another source of anxiety for the French government.
In 2012, Ogras was one of the organisers of a demonstration in Paris that drew 15,000 people of Turkish origin to protest against the passing of a law outlawing the denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Two years later he helped organise a rally in Lyon for Erdogan as part of his successful campaign to become president of Turkey. In that address, Erdogan told his audience “not to forget their culture, their traditions and their belief”, and then urged them: “Don’t assimilate and don’t let your children assimilate”.
The Turkish president has been promoting a similar message throughout Europe for a while now with little more than murmurs of disapproval from prime ministers, presidents and chancellors. Assiduously cultivating a sense of victimhood among the Turkish diaspora, Erdogan has created a role for himself as the defender of Islam in a Europe rife with Islamophobia, even talking of a “crusade” against Muslims. “What many see in the image of Erdoğan is a strong personality who can challenge European leaders,” explained Ayhan Kaya, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, in an interview last week. “This strong father figure becomes attractive to those with rather conservative religious backgrounds.”
As Le Point reported in its lengthy analysis of Erdogan’s regime, more than 120 journalists are in prison in Turkey, ranking the country 155th out of 180 in terms of press freedom. In France, journalists are free from Erdogan’s tyranny but the same does not apply to the newspaper vendors, it seems – a fact that drew a sharp response from President Macron on Monday evening. “It is completely unacceptable that the posters of Le Point were withdrawn from newspaper kiosks for the reason that they displease the enemies of freedom in France as well as abroad,” he wrote on Twitter. “Press freedom is priceless; without it, it’s dictatorship.”
Such a response is likely to further deteriorate relations between Turkey and France – a relationship that has already been fraught since the publication last month of a letter signed by 300 prominent figures in France in which they warned of the rise of anti-Semitism and criticised the Koran for encouraging such prejudice. Erdogan was outraged by the letter – in his eyes it was yet another example of Europe’s “rampant Islamophobia” – and subsequently 19 Turkish universities have announced they will no longer be teaching French. In contrast, Turkey’s schools and universities are receiving government funding to teach Islamic values, creating what Erdogan describes as a more “pious generation”. In time he wants these values to be instilled in his compatriots throughout Europe, and that is not all he expects of them. “Have not just three but five children,” he told a rally last year. “The place in which you are living and working is now your homeland and new motherland. Stake a claim to it…because you are the future of Europe. It will be the best answer to the vulgarism, antagonism, and injustice made against you.”
That ‘vulgarism’ and ‘antagonism’ was brazenly displayed on the front cover of Le Point last week, and the response of some Turks will have pleased their president no end.