Why do Turks abroad vote? An insight into Turkish communities in France
There has been a significant Turkish presence in Europe for about 50 years. During this period of half a century, the most discussed questions concerning the Turkish communities of Europe have mainly been subjects such as integration, communitarianism, and cultural resistance. In the first decade of the 2000s Euro-Turks, or Turkish immigrants1 in Europe, experienced an unprecedented period of social acceptance into host societies. Improvements in relations between the EU and Turkey, economic growth in Turkey and relatively democratic initiatives by the Turkish government played a significant role in this golden age.
From the beginning of the 2010s, questions about Euro-Turkish communities started to take on a new dimension. Developments such as Turkey’s distancing itself from the EU and its values, the suspension of relations with the Union, increasing authoritarianism and Islamization in Turkey have changed the nature of discussions about Turkish migrants in Europe. Euro-Turks mostly originate from the rural regions of Anatolia, and their political tendencies and also those of young people originating from Turkish immigration in Europe have become even more visible with this break between the EU and Turkey. In 2012, in their countries of residence Turkish citizens gained the right to vote in Turkish elections and this provoked discussions on the politicization of the diaspora. There has been a number of topics on which these discussions have focused, viewed from a socio-political perspective: integration, the use of transnational communities as an instrument of soft power, Islamization and radicalization… From another perspective, discussions about external voting rights focused on topics such as legitimacy of transnational participation, and security of transnational votes.
For some, immigrants’ right to vote in the elections of their host country is completely legitimate and deserved because these people are still citizens though they no longer reside in their country of origin. However, these immigrants continue to be in physical and psychological contact with their homeland even if they are not always present there. They send money, they travel several times a year and they invest by buying property in the home countries. In contrast, others defend the idea that the electoral participation of immigrants in homeland elections is not legitimate, because by definition, democracy is based on the legitimization of governments by the consent of those they govern. However, in the case of transnational electoral participation, voters living abroad would not actually be “governed” by those who are elected in their homeland. One of the most visible criticisms of political participation by those who have emigrated manifests itself here: transnational voters are possibly likely to act irresponsibly because they are not directly governed by the leaders for whom they voted. Another criticism comes from an operational perspective: it concerns the difficulty and the significantly higher cost of providing the security of transnational votes.
In the case of Euro-Turks voting, the center of criticism focuses on their electoral tendencies. The political attitudes of Turkish emigrants are now clearer than ever because of the role that non-resident citizens play in Turkish political life. In particular, Turks in Western European countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands attract considerable attention because of their relatively more accentuated conservative-nationalist attitudes, a point discussed not only by the host/receiving societies but also by a visible section of the home society, i.e. Turkey.
As might be expected, the most popular nonacademic discussions (and criticisms) regarding Turkish communities’ transnational votes do not refer to the question of legitimization or operational costs, but to the inconsistency between the political choices of Turks living in the aforementioned countries and their living conditions and lifestyles. In other words, the conservative-nationalist tendencies of Euro-Turks living in liberal democracies and having significantly better living conditions than those of their compatriots living in Turkey reveal a strong clash between two main social categories: first, the secular and social democrats, as can be expected and secondly, people in financial difficulties who find these tendencies unjust as immigrants cannot understand the economic reality of Turkey since they work and earn in Europe. These disagreements can easily be observed through different social media platforms such as ekşisözlük,2 Twitter or even street interviews on YouTube.3 These disagreements mostly stem from claims made by some Euro-Turks about their positive opinions of Turkey: “life is very easy in Turkey”, “the Turkish economy is better than the German economy” etc…
The objective of this article is neither to strive for a better analysis of the legitimacy of Euro-Turks’ political participation, nor to establish a deeper comprehension of resident citizens’ point of view on the question. This article aims to explain the motivations and expectations of Euro-Turks (with a special focus on Franco-Turks) in casting their ballots in general and presidential elections in Turkey.
External voting as a mode of transnational political participation
Although there is not any certain definition upon which social scientists have agreed, political participation can be defined as the acts and activities that an individual performs in order to have an effect on those who possess political authority. According to American political scientist Robert Dahl,4 the political participation of the individual manifests itself in four forms: being interested in politics, attaching importance to it, increasing their political consciousness and finally, acting. Each of these forms signifies a different level of intensity of participation. Having an interest in politics and attributing importance to it signifies different levels for the individual who follows political news as a spectator through newspapers, social media, and television. Increasing consciousness refers not only to reading in order to gain deeper technical knowledge but also to generating ideas by writing in newspapers for example. And finally, acting politically means active participation in politics such as being a member of a party, running for office or taking part in election campaigns etc.
Following the Industrial Revolution in Europe, people wished to participate in the formation of political decisions. So, one of the fundamental principles of the nation-state, the most widespread form of administrative organization in our modern era, is based on the convention that governing authority receives its competency and powers through the participation of the governed population through the election process. Therefore, today the level of development of modern democracies can be measured through the active participation of citizens in political life. One of the most common models in this area is participation via votes. It is clear that in modern democracies, every citizen has their right to vote, and thus voters participate in the decision to choose the next government.
It would be also relevant to clarify the question of transnational political participation which refers to a new cross-border dimension of citizenship, a status that has long been confined within the borders of the “nation-state”. This new dimension has weakened the connection between citizenship and territory through its two main axes: political participation of resident non-citizens and that of non-resident citizens. External voting rights are a good example to concretize the concept of transnational political participation. According to its simplest definition, provided by the Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), external voting is:
“The inclusion in the electoral law and regulations of a country of provisions and procedures which enable some or all electors of a country who are temporarily or permanently outside the country to exercise their voting rights from outside the territory of the country.”Andrew Ellis et al., Voting From Abroad: The International IDEA Handbook, Stockholm: International IDEA, 2007, p. 248.
Turkish transnational space in France
Today, the Turkish immigrants in France and French people originating from Turkish immigration form a population of approximately 700,000 individuals.5 France hosts the second largest Turkish community in the world after Germany. Turkish immigration to France has been made up of several migratory waves, each of which involved profiles that differ not only through “primary” characteristics such as economy, sociability or culture, but also “secondary” characteristics such as ethnicity or nationality. It is true that today, after 50 years, there is a clearly observable “Turkish transnational social space” in France, which has its own dynamics, relational networks, ecosystems, restaurants, cafes, barbers, schools, mosques…
Even if the beginning of Turkish immigration in France goes back to the last few years of the Ottoman Empire, in the1910s and 1920s, Turkish immigration-related discussions in intellectual circles and in French public opinion appeared with the migration of male workers as of the 1960s. The immigration of low-skilled or unskilled workers was followed by the family reunification period. From 1976, the wives and children of the workers built up a real migratory flow through which the Franco-Turkish population gained visibility in societal life in France.
Another flow that deserves to be considered as a migratory wave is the movement of political refugees. The history of Turkish emigration to France is not limited to a single migratory flow because several major political events have caused migratory movements since the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. Even if it is difficult to determine the exact figures, it is possible to say that the migratory wave of a young, relatively better educated and more politicized population, occurred around the year 1980, and it has been one of the most visible factors in forming the Turkish migratory social space in France. With this new migratory wave, the profiles of Turks in France have become more diversified, not only in terms of educational level, but also, in the ethnicity and religious beliefs of the population. In other words, the latter movement consisted, in the vast majority, of a population consisting of Alevis and Kurds who joined a community in France who were almost all Muslim-Sunni. In addition, the migratory movement of Turkish citizens from Southeast Anatolia due to the low-intensity conflicts that lasted until the middle of the 1990s and the migration of highly qualified migrants which started around 2013 can be considered as other migratory movements towards France.
Such a transnational social space, created over long decades, would obviously have its particularities. These are sometimes qualified as “the Turkish exception”6 or community withdrawal7 due to the mechanisms of resistance Turkish immigrants in France have developed against acculturation or assimilation. These interpretations had long been criticized by some other researchers who did not deny the existence of these mechanisms but defended the idea that Turkish immigrants may resist assimilation but there is an explanation for this. The explanation has focused on the fact that aforementioned interpretations ignored one of the transnational dimensions of immigration: migrants’ baggage which is comprised of components such as culture, language, history, religion and the economic background of immigrants. This shows that an analysis, especially in this day and age, with no transnational perspective would be lacking an important reality.
Another significative particularity of Turkish social space in France is the values around which this population can come together. In my previous research, I observed that Turkishness has a reunifying power.8 For Turkish immigrants in France, Turkishness has components such as religion, traditions or daily practices. As the disappearance of the language of origin is inevitable in the host country, emigrants ardently protect their religion, which reminds them of home. Therefore, it would not be contradictory to see religion as a principle of Distinction in the transnational space. Notwithstanding, it does not mean that different social groups would not interact between each other. Micro-belonging can also play the role of a short life magnet by creating a strong gravitational field among Turks in France. Political tendencies are even more binding for a significant number of Turkish immigrants in France. In order to better understand electoral motivations and the formation of the political culture of Turkish citizens living in France, we need to take a look at their political behaviors.
Transnational votes of Franco-Turks
The first version of the Turkish law establishing the right to vote in Turkey for Turks living abroad dates back to 1987. However, this law permitted voting only at the ballot boxes located at customs posts on Turkish territory and could not be considered as a right for external voting since it required cross-border travel to be able to vote. In 2012, non-resident Turkish citizens obtained the right to vote in elections in Turkey in the diplomatic representations of Turkey in their country of residence. So, for the presidential elections in 2014, the Turkish transnational communities voted for the first time in their countries of residence.
Since this entitlement there have been three general elections and two presidential elections in Turkey. For each of these elections, there were six locations where Turkish citizens could use their right to vote: Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon, Strasbourg, Paris and Nantes. The total number of Turkish voters for the October 2015 elections was 312,454 while in 2018 this figure increased to 340,751 which means there was a subsequent increase in the participation rate: 36% in 2015 and 47% in 2018. In both elections, the governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) received a noticeably higher percentage than the votes it receives in Turkey. This situation can be understood by the fact that the political tendencies of migrants are likely to be similar to those of their compatriots with a non-migrant background but sharing similar sociological trajectories. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a significant number of the Turkish population in France originate from rural regions or provincial cities in Anatolia. Correspondingly, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) clearly increased the votes it received compared to the national context. It would not be contradictory to say that this can be linked to the Alevi-Kurdish population who arrived in France as political refugees. However, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party which normally receives more than 20% of the votes in Turkey, has not received more than 9% in France. There is almost the same scenario for the presidential elections held in 2014 and 2018: in France, Erdoğan received 66% and 63,7% of the total votes respectively.
In short, knowing the particularities of the Turkish transnational social space in France would allow us to better understand the electoral motivations of the Franco-Turks. Similarly, knowing their political choices opens up new paths for examining the formation of political culture within communities. To reiterate, this article aims to understand the roots of the motivations that drive French Turks to vote in elections in Turkey, but not to examine the political parties they prefer.
Fear of exclusion as a motivation for voting
Exclusion is a commonly used method of social punishment that clearly shows the mechanical character of a community, as Durkheimian sociology indicates. Different cultural backgrounds or religious beliefs can play a role the exclusion or acceptance of people among some Turkish communities in France. For example, it has been found in previous research that eating pork can be a parameter for exclusion.9 Similarly, the marriage of young women is likely to play the same role. It is important to remember that the marriage of Franco-Turk women to young men “imported“from Turkey10 and vice versa, can be considered a common practice. The reasons for this tendency may be resistance to acculturation or assimilation. The strategy of the “permanent first generation”, to use the terms of Samim Akgönül,11 is a method developed and commonly used to remain a part of the community in the Turkish transnational space in France.
These examples show the importance for some Franco-Turks of being part of the migrant community or micro-community. So, as might be expected, continual efforts to not be excluded from the community are a comprehensible and legitimate action. Just like the aforementioned cultural particularities, not having the same political tendencies as others in the same “group” may turn into a reason for exclusion from certain Turkish communities since political polarization is a binding reality in Turkish transnational communities in France.
It is possible to observe among the Turks in France that when talking about “us”, the reference is not to a group of compatriots, but to a much narrower group. This explains why in the Turkish transnational social space in France, Turks do not consider themselves as a homogeneous society either since there are several branches in this community. For example, being Alevi but not Sunni, or voting for this party but not that party, or migration motivations such as being an economic migrant, a political refugee or a highly skilled expatriate, can play a role in social separation between Turkish migrants in France. So, in this context, any political motivations when casting a ballot can be considered as a motivation to remain part of a certain group, as Balibar explains in Nous, Citoyens d’Europe.12
The family plays a crucial role in the formation of political socialization, which means the process of gaining a certain political culture. The political-cultural level of family has a remarkable influence on the politicization of children. Parents’ ideas about the political system and their behaviors are the starting point for children’s ideologies and the level of their interest in politics. Besides these direct effects, the worldview of family, family structure, and attitudes towards the children influence the politicization of children in an indirect way. As for contexts where social ties and a sense of belonging are even stronger, the role of the family becomes even more essential. So, assuming that families influence the political ideologies of children, imagining social exclusion due to political tendencies would not be appropriate without taking into consideration the role of family.
Regarding Turkish immigrants in France, families are the major determinant of the “sense of belonging”. More precisely, if family members, especially parents, consider themselves as Franco-Turks, or only French or only Turkish, this categorization would directly affect the social identification of children. The political behaviors of Turkish communities in France are directly connected to their sense of belonging. Yet, it would be useful to remember that this belonging has two dimensions which are clearly different: belonging to the Franco-Turkish community or belonging to Turkey. This question is significantly determinant in terms of the electoral motivations of Franco-Turks for several reasons. Firstly, if the “sense of belonging” is referring to the Turkish communities in France, or, a voter identifies themselves as a “Franco-Turk”, it means their political choice and motivations are likely to be more pragmatic. If “Turkishness” dominates Franco-Turkishness, pragmatic motivations or rational choices can give way to more emotional and identity-related motivations. Let’s remember Turkish flags in the streets of French cities after any major political events such as elections in Turkey or the enactment of the French law against denying the Armenian Genocide. These examples also show that Franco-Turkish identity has a tendency to slide towards a “political Turkishness” when it is a question of supporting the home country and its interests.
In addition to these points, discussing the point of view of the host society is important as well. In recent years, Franco-Turks’ political tendencies have been a subject widely discussed in political life in France. The closure of Ülkü Ocakları13 and the cancellation of the naturalization process of a Franco-Turk who supported Erdoğan through his social media profiles are some examples showing how French politicians deal with the question of the politicization of Franco-Turks regarding Turkish politics. Apparently, anxiety within the host society and politicians stems from the fear that that transnational participation would be a possible obstacle during the process of political integration and social cohesion. But in point of fact, are these steps taken by French authorities really able to assure political integration and social cohesion? Personally, I am not sure.
All transnational votes are not lacking in rational expectations or calculations of the cost. There are some countries, like Tunisia, which have already set up constituencies for their citizens residing abroad. Elected representatives of these constituencies try to make the transnational communities more visible in political life by trying to help solve their problems in both host and home countries. For Turkey, since there is no transnational constituency, transnational communities’ votes are dissociated and distributed to the national constituencies. This distribution can have visible consequences. For example, in 2015, a candidate from Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Ali Öztunç was elected as a member of parliament. Afterwards, once the transnational votes were counted and added, Ali Öztunç lost his seat. In 2018, Öztunç ran again but was not elected. Once the transnational votes were counted, Öztunç overtook his opponent and became a member of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
In conclusion, Franco-Turks have different motivations for going to the polls. Rather than discussing the legitimacy of the exercise of this democratic right, it would be more visionary for political actors to stop considering immigrants as an instrument. This instrumentalization becomes more visible when we observe the voting motivations of some French Turks. Secondly, taking inclusive pragmatic steps (for example, immigrant constituencies) rather than exclusionary identity politics would also encourage Turkish citizens living abroad to be interested in the politics of their home country without becoming distant from the politics of the country they live in. It should not be forgotten that transnational political participation and integration, when managed properly, are processes that support, not weaken, each other.
- For the sake of simplicity I use this term but it does not mean to reflect the ethnic, religious and political diversity among the large numbers of emigrants from Turkey. Thus the term comprises all emigrants having Turkish citizenship and their foreign-born children.
- ekşisözlük is a collaborative hypertext dictionary and one of the most visited online participatory forums in Turkey. Last year, “campaign for cancellation of external voting rights for Turks living abroad” was one of the most popular entries.
- There are many videos about these discussions on internet. See this one for an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXQAHRpbdf8
- Robert Dahl, Modern Political Analysis, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1963
- It is difficult to find precise numbers on immigration-related topics because of the complexity of the term. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimation, the Turkish population in France is around 700,000: https://www.bik.gov.tr/hangi-ulkede-kac-turk-vatandasi-yasiyor.
- French demographer Tribalat was the first to define Turkish immigrants in France as an exceptional community due to the strong resistance against integration to the host society. This definition is discussed in details in :Claire Autant-Dorier, “Bilmemekten Tanımaya : Fransa’daki Türkiye Kökenli Göçmenler” In : Entegrasyonun Ötesinde : Türkiye’den Fransa’ya Göç ve Göçmenlik Halleri,(ed.) Didem Danış & Verda İrtiş, İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları. 2008.
- “Repli communautaire” in French.
- Yiğit Binzet, “Émergence d’un Nouveau Groupe Social dans l’Espace Migratoire : Nouvelle Vague Migratoire Turque en France”, Mémoire de Master en Sciences Politiques, Institut d’Etudes Politiques Strasbourg, 2019. p. 101.
- Yiğit Binzet, “Göç alanı içerisinde yeni bir sosyal grubun ortaya çıkışı: Fransa’ya yakın dönem Türk göçü” In: Göç Dergisi, 8(2), 2021. pp. 337.
- Petek-Şalom Gaye, “Des gendres et des brus ʻimportésʼ de Turquie par les familles.” In: Hommes et Migrations, n° 1232, Juillet-août 2001. pp. 41-50.
- Samim Akgönül, “Appartenances et Altérités chez les Originaires de Turquie en France”, In: Hommes et Migrations, 1280, 2009. Pp. 39.
- Étienne Balibar, Nous Citoyens d’Europe : Les Frontières, l’État, le Peuple, Paris : La Découverte, 2001.
- Grey wolves officially known as the Ülkü Ocakları (Idealist Hearths), is a Turkish ultranationalist organization.