TURKEY’S PRESIDENT, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made sure the protests in France have a captive audience in Turkey. News outlets controlled by the government have offered breathless live coverage from Paris. With furrowed brows, senior officials have criticised French police for using excessive force. Mr Erdogan weighed in on December 10th. “From now on, nobody has the right to lecture Turkey about democracy, human rights and freedoms,” he said.
Turkey’s government has not had to worry about mass protests in years. According to the Reuters Institute, 65% of Turks fear that expressing their political views even on the internet could get them into trouble. Scores of people have suffered for expressing such views in the streets. Last month police arrested 13 civil-society leaders and academics, accusing them of “attempting to overthrow Turkey’s government” by inciting a wave of popular unrest, known as the Gezi Park protests, back in the summer of 2013. All except one were later released. The man the police refer to as the group’s ringleader, Osman Kavala, has already spent over a year behind bars without an indictment.
Murat Celikkan, a human-rights campaigner whose wife was detained, fears more arrests may be coming. “This government needs to come up with new enemies,” he says. “It needs to consolidate its supporters.” Some 3.5m people took part in the protests of 2013. Eight people were killed. Hundreds were investigated on charges of involvement in a coup.
Mr Erdogan has always blamed the Gezi protests on outside forces, including the Gulenists, an Islamist movement believed to have orchestrated a genuine coup attempt in 2016, and on something he refers to as the “interest-rate lobby”. He recently identified a new culprit: George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist. “The person who financed terrorists during the Gezi events is now in prison,” Mr Erdogan said on November 21st. “And who is behind him? Soros, the famous Hungarian Jew.”
Less than a week later, the Open Society Foundation, a charity that Mr Soros founded and Mr Kavala had joined as a board member, announced it was ending operations in Turkey, citing a smear campaign by pro-government news outlets.
For a strongman in need of a bogeyman, there is something irresistible about Mr Soros. He is rich. He bankrolls charities that promote liberal values. He is—guilty as charged—Jewish. And he cannot hit back, because the conspiracy theories about his vast, illicit influence are twaddle. Which is perhaps why Mr Erdogan has joined Hungary’s Viktor Orban in decrying him.
But even Mr Erdogan’s well-oiled propaganda machine sometimes malfunctions. At one demonstration in Paris, a protester dressed in a yellow jacket started to heckle a reporter from a Turkish state news channel during a live broadcast. “They don’t report on any protests in their own country,” he yelled out, “but here they are reporting from France.” The gilet jaune turned out to be Turkish. The station, naturally, called him a terrorist sympathiser.