Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the jailing of Turkish journalists and lashed out at a French reporter during a tense visit on Friday to Paris.
The trip to the French capital had been billed as the start of a charm offensive by Mr Erdogan to mend frayed ties with European partners.
But that quickly unravelled during an uncomfortable press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, as Mr Erdogan launched into a tirade against a reporter who asked about Turkey and Isis.
Accusing the journalist of “speaking the language” of Turkey’s outlawed Gulenist movement, Mr Erdogan said newspaper columnists were partly responsible for nurturing terrorism and defended the detention of Osman Kavala, a prominent Turkish human rights activist.
“Terror doesn’t form by itself,” Mr Erdogan said. “These gardeners are those people viewed as thinkers. They water . . . from their columns on newspapers . . . And one day, you find, these people show up as a terrorist in front of you.”
The visit to the Elysée Palace was meant to build trust and cement the personal relationship Mr Erdogan has build with the French President. The pair speak regularly by phone. Instead, it was likely to confirm the fears of diplomats that the new positive language will not be matched by a fundamental shift on human rights.
Mr Macron said at the press conference that he had raised concerns with Mr Erdogan about a crackdown on Turkish academics and journalists. He warned: “Our democracies must be strong standing up to terrorism . . . But at the same time our democracies must completely protect the rule of law.”
Turkish ministers and officials had begun 2018 by promising to turn over a new leaf in their relationship with the EU, the country’s biggest trade partner, after a period of growing international isolation following the failed 2016 putsch.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minster, said ahead of a meeting with German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel on Saturday that the visit would herald a “new beginning”.
The shift in tone from Ankara follows pressure from Berlin to end the harsh rhetoric and release jailed German citizens. “The message given by EU member states was that you can’t keep the relationship intact if you keep calling Angela Merkel a Nazi,” said Asli Aydintasbas, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I think it hit home.”
The first significant sign that Turkey was willing to listen came in October with the release of Peter Steudtner, a German activist who had been detained along with a group of Turkish human rights defenders.
At least two more German citizens have also been released in the past month, although Deniz Yucel, a Die Welt correspondent who has been behind bars for almost a year, remains in a Turkish jail.
Turkish officials have also in recent weeks begun speaking about a new push to revive talks on upgrading the EU-Turkey customs union and reviving Turkey’s EU accession bid.
They have been spurred on by the deteriorating relationship with the US, which has faced renewed pressure after Wednesday’s conviction of a Turkish banker for conspiring to evade US sanctions. Mr Erdogan on Friday warned that bilateral agreements between the US and Turkey were “losing their validity”.
Even before the Paris trip, the response among European diplomats to Turkey’s overtures was sceptical. “There have been steps in the right direction, but more are needed,” said one. “Ankara’s charm offensive is all talk so far,” said another, who added: “Improvements on the rule of law are the only thing that counts.”
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