Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “defaming Turkey” in a speech this week in which he reportedly defended a free media in Turkey and urged Ankara to take in more migrants.
Turkey is currently hosting nearly 4 million refugees – the world’s largest refugee population – most of them fleeing the Syrian Civil War.
Cavusoglu insulted Macron in comments published by Anadolu Agency, Turkey’s state-run news service and one of the few in the country left untouched by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping crackdown on free media in the country. Since the failed coup against him in 2016, Erdogan has forced the shutdown of at least 130 media outlets; those that survived, like the newspapers Zaman and Hurriyet, were sold to Erdogan-friendly owners and now mostly republic Anadolu reports. Others, like Yeni Safak, were so fanatically pro-Erdogan to begin with that the government did nothing overtly to impact their reporting.
Anadolu Agency accused Macron of having “criticized Turkey’s policy on Syria as well as freedom of expression in the country” in remarks at this week’s Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Macron “exceeded his boundaries by defaming Turkey on freedom of expression,” Cavusoglu told the outlet. “How many migrants has Macron accepted in his country? Instead, he hosted YPG/PKK terrorists at Elysee Palace.”
The YPG are the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (also consisting of a women’s army, the YPJ), an anti-Islamist militia allied with the United States that was largely responsible for the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Raqqa, the former capital of the jihadist group’s “caliph.” The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Marxist terrorist organization. The United States has designated the PKK a terrorist group but cooperates with the YPG; the Turkish government considers them indistinguishable from each other and actively uses troops to antagonize the YPG and keep them far from the Turkish border.
France also cooperates with the YPG; Macron hosted leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition featuring Kurdish fighters, in Paris this year.
Cavusoglu referred to Macron generally as a “rooster crowing while its feet are covered in dirt,” claiming that Macron is cooperating with terrorists by meeting with YPG officials and that the French government has also harassed journalists. His ties to the Kurdish separatists – who accept neither Islamist rule nor the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad – render his criticism invalid, Cavusoglu meant to argue.
“Journalists were excluded from the PACE’s 70th anniversary celebration due to the blockage of France. Also, we know that Macron has shut down the media department in the Elysee,” the Turkish foreign minister said.
In an extended speech before the Council of Europe on Tuesday, Macron spoke generally about Europe having a responsibility to take in refugees and actively rejected the idea of “absolute free speech.”
Referring to social media, Macron said that Europe had to “deal with the issue of public order on the internet” today because the idea of individuals speaking freely into a universally accessible medium was new.
“Liberty is liberty that is expressed through the laws of the sovereign,” he insisted, adding that “there is no such thing” as “absolute” freedom of speech.
A week ago, Macron complained about the influx of migrants into France while visiting New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
“If France wants to welcome them, well, it cannot admit everyone,” he lamented. “I made a promise on this issue in July 2017, but we weren’t able to keep this promise.”
Macron has made his commitment to Kurdish fighters in the Middle East a prevalent part of his foreign policy, infuriating Turkey. He hosted members of the SDF in France in April, following the announcement of the complete eradication of the ISIS “caliphate” from the country. While ISIS remains a threat in Africa and southeast Asia, it no longer holds territory in the heart of the Middle East, save for small pockets in remote locations of Syria and Iraq.
Macron also maintains friendly relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, an autonomous region from Baghdad that has diplomatic ties to Ankara. Barzani welcomed Masoud Barzani, the former KRG president, to Paris in September to discuss cooperation.
“President Barzani expressed support for the initiative by [French] President Emmanuel Macron on Syria and conveyed his concerns and observations to [Decottignies and his accompanying delegation] about the situation and future of the Kurdish people in Syria,” a statement from Barzani’s political party read following their meeting.
Macron most recently met a KRG representative in New York last week.
Macron also met in person with Erdogan this summer at the G-20 Summit in June, hosted by Japan. Despite the criticism, Turkey and France maintain cordial, if not close, relations.