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François PICARD

François PICARD

Hollande in Turkey: no more questions please

Le 26-01-2014

It’s the political equivalent of showing up with flowers and walking straight into a bar room brawl.

The pitfalls lie not so much in François Hollande’s relationship status update. The break-up with partner Valérie Trierweiler aside, when Hollande touches down Monday for the long-overdue first state visit by a French president to Turkey in 22 years, he’ll do his darndest to stay out of the political tsunami in Ankara.

Not only is Turkey’s Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan grappling with the worst political crisis of his career.

Hollande will also be the first major Western leader to visit Turkey since last summer’s Gezi Park protests that did so much to tarnish Erdogan’s reputation abroad.

This past week, when the Turkish prime minister visited Brussels, the European Commission publicly voiced "concern" over "respect for the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and, generally speaking, the separation of powers" under Erdogan.

But all is stage-managed for Hollande and his hosts to avoid blushes.

“That’s the beauty of a formal state visit,” said Marc Sémo, journalist at French daily Libération. “Because of protocol, he’ll see very little of Erdogan. Most of his time will be spent with president Abdullah Gül, the acceptable face of Turkey.”

Hollande’s joint press conference will be with Gül, not Erdogan.

Make no mistake. There was much wavering in Paris over whether to postpone or cancel the visit. But the argument was soon over when advisors highlighted how from 2009 to 2012, France’s share of trade with Turkey had dropped from 6% to 3%.

“It’s better to talk than to let a country on the borders of Europe choose a different orientation from ours,” said an Hollande advisor at an off-the-record briefing, before adding “the role of the president will not be to judge but to encourage.”

The French president’s mission will be to duck and weave his way to the table where Paris can sign on the dotted line for deals that would include the Sinop nuclear power plant, a project that brings together French firms Areva and Gaz de France, along with Japan’s Mitsubishi.

Hollande will not only steer well clear of Turkish politics. He’ll also be keen to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessor, conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“The previous government had a different relationship [with Turkey],” said the Hollande advisor referring to Sarkozy, who campaigned for the presidency in 2007 on a double promise of keeping Turkey out of the EU and criminalizing the denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

“The only possible surprises could come when Hollande meets students at Galatasaray University Tuesday,” added Sémo, pointing to what could be the best hope for some unscripted straight-talk… from both sides.