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Hollande heads to crisis-hit Turkey after split from first lady

French President Francois Hollande (L) and his companion Valerie Trierweiler arrive for a state dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris in this May 7, 2013 file photograph, as part of Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski's two-day visit to France. REUTERS/Thibault Camus/Pool/Files

ANKARA: French President Francois Hollande heads to Turkey on Monday on his first trip abroad since his dramatic announcement that he had split from his longstanding partner Valerie Trierweiler.

Hollande's visit is the first by a French head of state in 22 years and reflects a thaw in once-frosty ties, although it comes as Turkey is battling its worst political crisis in over a decade.

But much of the attention may well be focused on his revelation on Saturday that he was ending his "shared life" with Trierweiler, two weeks after a tabloid revealed he was having an affair with a younger actress.

The 59-year-old Socialist president, who was with Trierweiler for seven years, has come under fire from opponents for getting embroiled in such a public scandal about his love life.

"I believe that everybody now understands that president or not president, one is entitled to have a private life," the embattled president said in an interview with Time just hours before he announced the split.

Trierweiler, 48, meanwhile went ahead with a two-day charity mission to India on Sunday despite no longer being France's first lady.

The feisty twice-divorced journalist was herself once the other woman, remaining Hollande's secret companion as he kept up appearances with ex-partner Segolene Royal during her failed 2007 presidential campaign.

Actress Julie Gayet has kept a low profile since the scandal broke on January 10, when French gossip magazine Closer splashed photos of Hollande arriving on a motor scooter for alleged secret trysts with her at a flat near the Elysee Palace.

In Turkey however, Hollande's goal will be to try to fix damaged political and economic ties with France's NATO ally, bringing with him seven ministers and a 40-strong delegation of business leaders.

Relations took an icy turn under Hollande's rightwing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who was vehemently opposed to Muslim-majority Turkey joining the European club.

And they hit an all-time low after French lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I constituted genocide.

Although the legislation was later declared invalid by France's constitutional court, it severely damaged business ties.

Hollande, the first president to visit Turkey since Francois Mitterrand in 1992, is on a mission "to put things right", according to his entourage.

The trip comes at a particularly difficult time for Turkey however, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan embroiled in a widening corruption scandal that has implicated members of his inner circle, including ministers and reportedly his own son.

Erdogan blames his woes on what he says is a coup plot by supporters of an erstwhile ally, US-exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who hold positions of influence in many parts of the state apparatus including the police and courts.

But his response to the graft probe, a wholesale purge of police and prosecutors and moves to tighten government controls on the judiciary, has provoked deep concerns about the state of democracy in Turkey.

Hollande is expected to follow the line of European leaders who met Erdogan on his visit to Brussels last week aimed at advancing Turkey's EU membership bid.

Paris wants to press home the point that accession talks will not go anywhere unless Ankara upholds its commitments "to the rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and the respect for basic freedoms," a presidential source said.

Negotiations between Brussels and the country of 76 million people only resumed in November after a three-year freeze.

Hollande has so far deflected questions on his own view towards Turkey, saying the EU has ruled out membership before 2020 -- after his first term in office ends.

On the business front, deals are expected to be signed in various fields including nuclear energy and infrastructure projects.

France's share of the Turkish market halved to three percent between 2009 and 2012 just as Turkey was growing as an emerging economic power, tripling the size of its economy over the 10 years to 2012.

But French companies enjoyed a more successful 2013, sealing deals in Turkey worth 15 billion euros ($20 billion).

 

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Summary

French President Francois Hollande heads to Turkey on Monday on his first trip abroad since his dramatic announcement that he had split from his longstanding partner Valerie Trierweiler.

Hollande's visit is the first by a French head of state in 22 years and reflects a thaw in once-frosty ties, although it comes as Turkey is battling its worst political crisis in over a decade.

The 59-year-old Socialist president, who was with Trierweiler for seven years, has come under fire from opponents for getting embroiled in such a public scandal about his love life.

In Turkey however, Hollande's goal will be to try to fix damaged political and economic ties with France's NATO ally, bringing with him seven ministers and a 40-strong delegation of business leaders.

French companies enjoyed a more successful 2013, sealing deals in Turkey worth 15 billion euros ($20 billion).


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