Erdogan heads to France seeking EU thaw

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday visits Paris for talks with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, seeking to start the New Year by warming relations with the European Union after a torrid 2017. Macron will host Erdogan at the Elysee Palace with talks expected to range from Syria to trade ties, and the French side is also expected to sound concern over the human rights situation in Turkey. But high on the agenda will be Turkey's relations with the EU, which Ankara has sought to join for the last 50 years in an epic membership saga that appeared to hit the buffers amid bitter rows in 2017. "By getting closer to France, Turkey is seeking to give a new boost to its EU membership bid," said Jana Jabbour, professor of Political Science at Sciences Po university in Paris and the author of a book on Turkish foreign policy. She told AFP this need was especially acute at a time of diplomatic tensions with the United States following Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. - 'Starting somewhere' - The Turkish leader has been a frequent visitor to Russia, the Gulf and Africa over the last year but has been rarely sighted in Europe since the July 15, 2016 coup bid aimed at removing him from power. The visit to France will be his first since the botched putsch. Over the last year -- discounting G20 and NATO summits -- Erdogan's only trips to EU member states have been to Poland and Greece. Still absent from the presidential itinerary is a visit to Germany. Ankara endured its bitterest crisis in 2017 with Berlin, which was roundly critical of the crackdown that followed the failed coup and has left some 55,000 jailed. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often talked tough on Turkey, Macron has however made clear the need to "avoid ruptures" with a country that is an "essential partner". Samim Akgonul, lecturer at Strasbourg University, said Turkey and the EU had "to start somewhere" in finding an improvement in relations and the only two countries who could do this were Germany and France. But he expressed doubt there could be any radical change for the better in 2018. "I don't think that relations can advance structurally." - 'Won't sacrifice ties for rights' - Erdogan last week appeared to hold out an olive branch to the EU, saying "we must reduce the number of enemies and increase the number of friends." He praised Macron -- as well as the German leadership -- for support over the Jerusalem issue, saying the EU and Ankara were on the same page. The shared opposition of both Brussels and Ankara to Trump's move could itself stimulate better relations. "They (Paris) did not leave us by ourselves on this issue (Jerusalem)," Erdogan said. Ahead of the visit, Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin described France as a "leading ally" and expressed hope that the visit would further boost their alliance. The Elysee said that as well as Syria and the Palestinian issue, "the issue of human rights" would be discussed. Trade is also important with both sides looking to lift a current trade volume that stands at $13.38 billion. Meanwhile hosting Erdogan in Paris gives Macron -- who since his election in May last year has sought a new prominence for France on the European and world stages -- another high-profile and potentially sensitive guest. Macron has already hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at the former royal palace of Versailles near Paris and took Trump for dinner at the Eiffel Tower. Jabbour said that Ankara welcomed Macron's accession to power, seeing him as a leader with a pragmatic foreign policy while the French president wanted a new relationship with Turkey based on mutual interests. "Macron will not totally sacrifice French-Turkish relations on the altar of human rights," she said.