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Why Erdoğan’s attacks on France will backfire

Agathe Demarais is global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit. She previously worked as a diplomat for the French Treasury in Russia and the Middle East.

As France grapples with its response to yet another terrorist attack, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clearly sensed an opportunity.

In the aftermath of the brutal beheading of a French teacher and the French government’s subsequent pledge to crack down on “radical Islam,” the Turkish president did something few other heads of state would dare to suggest: He called for a boycott of French products.

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It’s a bold move, but one he’s also likely to regret.

His bombastic message is not new, but an echo of what happened across the Muslim world following the deadly Islamist terror attack against journalists from the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in January 2015.

The attack, which killed 12 people, prompted mass rallies across the world in favor of free speech. But in the Muslim world, protests against France and calls for boycotts of French products proliferated — especially after the paper chose to publish another caricature of the prophet (titled “All is forgiven”) shortly after the killings.

Erdoğan knows that resentment against France in the Middle East has not abated since then. Part of the Muslim world believes that France is, at its core, anti-Islam. France’s colonial past in North Africa is also an aggravating factor.

Those feelings are easily mobilized, as has become obvious on social media in the Middle East, where calls for boycotts on French food, dairy and luxury products have been trending in recent days. Bizarrely, some influencers also made a case for a boycott on French cement supplies.

The most obvious explanation is that Erdoğan hopes that wading into the debate and attacking the French president will divert attention from Turkey’s deteriorating economic situation, which is due in no small part to the Turkish government’s poor policymaking.

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Yet it would be simplistic to believe that Erdoğan’s actions are driven solely by domestic factors. His call for a boycott of French products is also intended to signal Turkey’s desire to play an ever-growing role on the regional scene.

Turkey has found itself at odds with France in a number of regional disputes recently, including in Libya (where France and Turkey back opposing factions), the eastern Mediterranean (where France backs Greece against Turkey) and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (where France backs Armenia, while Turkey supports Azerbaijan).

By calling for a boycott of French products, Turkey is showing that it is willing to flex its muscles in the face of a major European power. And by asserting his willingness to protect Islam from France’s perceived aggression, Erdoğan is also positioning Turkey as a direct competitor to both Saudi Arabia (which hosts Islam’s Holy sites) and Egypt (which hosts the Al Azar Mosque, a sort of religious authority for Sunni Muslims).

Erdoğan is keen to project himself as the sole protector of Islam and Muslims against what he presents as Europe’s constant aggressions. Religion is a means to an end, here: Turkey wants to play in the same court as Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the Middle East geopolitical scene.

Ultimately, Erdoğan is making a risky bet. In fact, his strategy has every chance of backfiring.

Already, international investors are selling off their lira assets at a rapid pace, as they believe geopolitical tensions are becoming explosive. In addition, in a show of solidarity with France, a number of Middle Eastern countries — including the UAE and Saudi Arabia — have called for a boycott of Turkish products.

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Europe and America are increasingly frustrated with Erdoğan’s erratic declarations, his provocative behavior and his attempts to cozy up to Russia. European governments’ forceful response to Erdoğan’s suggestion that Macron should get a mental health check suggests that the Turkish president’s credibility is running increasingly thin.

The Turkish president is on a dangerous path. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who is currently leading in the polls, wins the U.S. presidential election in early November, his administration is likely to take a tougher stance on Turkey than Donald Trump has done.

Washington may see evidence in Erdoğan’s calls for a boycott of French products that Ankara is unlikely to want to mend ties with the West, in which case U.S. sanctions against Turkey’s acquisition of Russian missiles will become more likely.

In such a scenario, Turkey’s economic and diplomatic prospects would become even more dire than they already are — and Erdoğan’s response to similar crises beyond its borders even more belligerent. None of this is likely to mend ties with his neighbors or the West.

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