French teachers face expulsion over diplomatic row with Turkey

Protesters on Feb. 23, 2021 hold a banner reading "All together" as Galatasaray University's French teachers face expulsion due to a work permit row.
Protesters on Feb. 23, 2021 hold a banner reading "All together" as Galatasaray University's French teachers face expulsion due to a work permit row. © Bulent Kilic, AFP

More than a dozen French professors at a top Turkish university face the threat of expulsion after being denied work permits while a diplomatic feud rages between Paris and Ankara.  


Six of the instructors at Istanbul's prestigious Galatasaray University told AFP they feel like they have been caught in the crosshairs of an occasionally personal war of words between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and France's Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders have had a tempestuous relationship, fighting over everything from Turkey's muscular foreign policies in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, to France's treatment of its large Muslim community.

The teachers' plight carries additional diplomatic overtones because the university, perched on a scenic spot overlooking the Bosphorus, was founded in 1992 by agreement between then French president François Mitterrand and Turkey's Turgut Ozal.

The university was established as a "flagship of Franco-Turkish cooperation" in 1992. Instead, it has turned into a symbol of animosity between the two NATO allies with Macron turning into a vocal critic of Erdogan's push into the contested eastern Mediterranean.

Language proficiency tit-for-tat

The row began in September when the French instructors were denied new work permits, which must be renewed yearly, after Turkey's Higher Education Council (YOK) suddenly changed the rules and required them to first pass an advanced B2 level Turkish language proficiency test.

Seeing it as a mere formality, the teachers complied. But in December, they learned that only six instructors who reached the advanced B2 level would be allowed to stay, leaving about 15 others in limbo.

The professors said they discovered the new criteria abruptly in December and had no time to prepare.

"This level, which is very high, is not necessary, as our lessons must be given in French," the teachers said in a joint statement. 

Without a residence permit, the French instructors cannot open bank accounts, sign leases, buy public transport passes or have the right to return to Turkey should they travel abroad.

The new language requirement appeared to come in response to France's decision to impose a similar French language proficiency rule for foreign teachers and imams from several countries, including Turkey.

Protests over new rector's appointment

The dispute comes amid a backdrop of mounting diplomatic tensions between France and Turkey that has had personal overtones between the leaders of the two countries. In September Erdogan questioned Macron's "mental health" over a row on Islam in France.

That same month, Macron said the Turkish people "deserve something else" than the policies of Erdogan.

As the impasse drags on, the French protesters are finding support from their Turkish colleagues and students, who are upset at what they see as the government's growing interference in campus life. Students and professors at nearby Bogazici University have been staging daily protests since the start of the year against Erdogan's appointment of a loyalist as its rector.

Protesters have been calling for the resignation of the new rector, Melih Bulu, and for the university to be allowed to elect its own president.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app