PARIS (AP/AFP)–President Jacques Chirac–beset by opposition to Turkey’s drive to join the European Union–told a divided France that the mostly Muslim country belongs in the EU–but that Paris will block negotiations if Ankara fails to meet membership conditions.
"Does Europe–and particularly France–have an interest in Turkey joining it? My answer is–’Yes–but,’" was how Chirac summed up his position on national television late Wednesday–explaining that adhesion could only occur after up to 20 years of negotiations and each current EU state–including France–could slam the door at any time.
The French would have the "last word" in a referendum–he said–giving the three principle criteria as a commitment to peace and stability–democracy–and economic and social development.
France also wants the issue of the massacre of Armenia’s in 1915-23 to be on the table during membership negotiations–although Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has said France will not demand official recognition of the killings as a condition for entry.
Turkey vehemently denies its genocide of 1.5 million Armenia’s–under its Ottoman Empire.
On Wednesday–the European Parliament called on EU leaders to open membership talks with Turkey "without undue delay." However–it urged Ankara to carry out more democratic reforms–move toward recognizing Cyprus and acknowledge the Armenian killings.
The summit–gathering the leaders of the 25 member states of the European Union–was expected to give the green light to the start of negotiations with Ankara.
But Chirac’s ruling conservative UMP party has pronounced itself against EU membership for Turkey–a large–relatively poor Muslim country–and surveys in France show most of the public was also against.
Chirac’s support for Turkey’s eventual membership has been met with grave misgivings among ordinary citizens worried about an influx of cheap labor to France–already stung by 10 percent unemployment. Many also question Turkey’s human rights record.
A poll published earlier this week by the newspaper Le Figaro suggests two in three French oppose bringing Turkey into the 25-nation bloc. The Socialist Party is divided over the issue–and Jean-Marie Le Pen–leader of the far-right National Front–insists Turkey is a country that "cannot be European."
"Only a rejection of the European constitution can save the French from this trap," Le Pen said Wednesday. "This willingness to integrate an Asian and Muslim country–against the will of the European people–illustrates the noxiousness of Brussels’ Europe."
By throwing his support behind Turkey–Chirac also has broken ran’s with his own party–the conservative Union for a Popular Movement–which favors a "privileged partnership" between the EU and Ankara that would fall far short of membership.
Although Chirac favors full membership for Turkey–while conceding it could take up to 20 years–a skeptical Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin argues that the influence of Islam in Turkey would clash with Judeo-Christian European values.
Confronting that argument head-on–Chirac contends that bringing the nation of 70 million people into the EU is the best way to tamp down Islamic extremism and eliminate what some Europeans see as a threat
Chirac had previously evoked a negotiating period of just 10 years. Suggesting talks could drag out twice as long with no certain result was latched upon by the French media Thursday.
"Even though he was forced to steer a straight course–Chirac seemed hesitant sometimes to pull on the oars," the left-leaning newspaper Liberation said of the interview.
It noted that Chirac’s real reason for reiterating his position at such a crucial time was to save another referendum he has proposed for next year–and which he holds more dearly: a plebiscite on adopting the European Union’s first constitution.
The French president fears that though two-thirds of voters are in favor of the constitution–they may reject the constitution as a way of registering their opposition to Turkey’s EU membership.
In his interview–Chirac said that referendum "must not be distracted from its very important goal by considerations which have nothing to do with it."
Le Figaro–a conservative daily that was the only national newspaper to put Chirac’s interview on its front page–said that the event was forced upon the president because he was "completely out of step with his country’s public opinion and isolated within his own camp."