Home > Uncategorized > Some last wisdom from David Barchard, RIP

Some last wisdom from David Barchard, RIP

When I began to work as a reporter in Turkey in 1987, David Barchard was the correspondent of the Financial Times and the outsider that everyone turned for an independent interpretation of Turkish affairs. He died on Christmas Day after an accidental fall in his native Yorkshire, aged 73.

His old friend İlhan Nebioğlu broke the news, noting well that that “even in his final moments he was fighting a week ago – for Turkish academic rights, abroad. David was a writer, journalist, consultant, university teacher @Bilkent, ex FT correspondent, great lover of Ottoman heritage, crazy about Cappadocia, special love for Turkey, great fighter for human rights and liberal values.”

David was erudite on many esoteric subjects from the rock monasteries of Cappadocia to Muslims in Crete to the history of Turkey’s foreign relations. His 1985 Chatham House Paper ‘Turkey and the West’ was passed hand to hand at a time when there was little else to read on the country’s modern history. (Battered old copies still sell online for more than many new books). Before moving to the FT, he wrote reports for The Guardian that were “almost unique in the Western press in exposing human rights abuses, the brutal treatment of ethnic minorities and other infringements of democracy”, courageously battling both Turkish censorship and Western diplomatic indifference. Cornucopia magazine, for which he often wrote, has an obituary and list of his publications here.

I remember him as someone who was both passionate in his concerns and also someone who could speak very softly in the most conspiratorial manner. Back in the days when many topics were totally taboo in Turkey – Kurds, Ataturk, Armenians – David would give me impartial guidance on the condition that I told nobody who told me.

As I was sadly going through his emails – the last as recent as three weeks ago – I came across an off-the-cuff meditation on Turkey-French relations that he sent round to some friends in 2012. I reproduce a lightly edited version of it below, since it shows how all that learning and experience made David Barchard prescient as we look at East Mediterranean events today. We are all poorer for his passing.

What’s behind the France-Turkey feud?

There are continuing tensions between France and Turkey – they were bad in the 1980s too – but I don’t think they are attributable to rivalry as Mediterranean powers. Egypt is the regional rival with which Turkey shares a permanent serious but never openly spoken tension. That’s a kind of pointless jealousy in practice, since they do not have many substantial issues between them.

The Turks never took a shine to the French politically, but until the rise of the American alliance after 1946, France and French culture were the models for Turkey. Many Turks of a certain age remember those days with nostalgia and believe that France has thrown away a strong position in their lifetime.

Sarkozy has compounded this for reasons which French diplomats themselves seem not to understand. “Something personal to him,” they mutter. But of course Chirac also went to Armenia and talked about the medieval kings, flirted with the Greek Cypriots (remember the French facilities – and German – that the Greeks planned to extend on the Andreas Papandreou air base on the island?) But to me this has always looked like cocking a snook at the Turks, nothing that would bring benefits comparable to a close trading, strategic, and political relationship with Turkey, indeed this alternative ‘alliance’ is rather a silly consolation prize.

It is true that in the first half of the 19th century France showed a flicker of interest (but no more) in territory in this part of the world, which sets it apart from the British who were never interested and took Cyprus only reluctantly. In about 1830 the French consul in Candia was drawing up plans to settle “half a million Frenchmen” in Crete, but it was only a tiny microsecond of interest and not taken up as an idea. The French were not quite pro-Ottoman Palmerstonians, but they never endorsed potential Russia expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans.

The French were indeed consistently unsympathetic to the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1830s, Algeria was an issue for reformist Ottoman statesman Mustafa Reshid, and he tried to raise the matter of French atrocities there as a human rights case at the bar of international opinion. (This even though Algeria, though part of Dar ul-Islam, was out of sync with the rest of the Ottoman lands: it was the only place not to obey orders to execute the Janissaries in June 1826 for example.)

The French did support the Turks against Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-56, which was crucial. In the 1867-69 rebellion in Ottoman Crete, however, Napoleon III backed the Greek rebels and proposed a plebiscite, causing the visit of Sultan Abdul Aziz to Paris in 1867 to be a much less happy event than his time in London. Even though the French did not call the shots in Crete, during the 1897-98 uprising French troops in Crete (like Russian ones) certainly were pro-Greek and did not punish, or even publicise, Christian massacres of Muslims in their sector of the island. Lord Salisbury went along with this but simply in order not to upset the French. 

You could argue that the sentimental tradition was exemplified by Frenchmen volunteering to fight for anti-Ottoman Christian nationalists, and there are hilarious accounts of their behaviour in Crete, a carry-over into the hostilities of the Commune a year or two later. You get Americans and Italians doing this as well, but the British left don’t seem to have actually picked up guns on behalf of the Greeks, though they were ready to spill ink for them.

So it looks as if there is a long-term sentimental relationship at work between French opinion and the enemies of the Turks and North African Muslims. The snag to this argument is that the whole turcophile/turcophobe debate, which was lively in Britain, was much more subdued in France. Victor Bérard was no Gladstone or E.A. Freeman (and of course you could set Pierre Loti in the scales against him – but did Pierre Loti leave any intellectual legacy?) There seems to be no French turcophile equivalent of Aubrey Herbert or Mark Sykes (for whom the Sykes Picot agreement is an ironic memorial).

The arrival of the Armenians in France after World War One of course underpinned anti-Turkish sentiment in France but it certainly did not invent it. The French had always been cooler. To understand this, one probably should study the intellectual formation of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

In the interwar period, however, the French could be said to have taken as much strategic interest in Turkey as the British, playing ball with the Turks over Hatay towards the end of the decade. 

Jump forward to the rift of the 1980s – which everyone except me seems to have forgotten about and I am the only person to have written about – and it seems to be caused by a certain unbending (or ultra-European) attitude to the Turkish dictatorship on the side of the French. They did not take up the torch of human rights in Turkey (except for Madame Mitterrand in her particular way) but they were inflexible on the sort of thing where Brits and Americans would, ahem, bow and scrape for diplomatic reasons.

The rise of Turkey’s EU candidacy was thus bound to run into trouble and I first heard a French diplomat articulating the idea that Europe stopped before, not after, the frontiers of Turkey in 1974/75 in London. He quoted Giscard in support of his view.

But is this a practical rivalry/hostility? There is certainly a slight territorial aspect to it. Naval tiffs in the Black Sea and Mediterranean have been known to happen. But as the above will have made clear I see this feud as a non-substantive attitude caused by a tradition. 

Some random thoughts on this matter as I wake up in a frozen land.

[From an email from David Barchard in Cappadocia on 19 January 2012].

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 28, 2020 at 2:16 pm

    Nice piece. May he rest in peace.

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