Genocide Bill Angers Turks as It Passes in France
By SCOTT SAYARE and SEBNEM ARSU
Published: January 23, 2012
PARIS — Relations between France and Turkey dipped to a nadir as the French Senate approved a bill late Monday criminalizing the denial of officially recognized genocides, including the Armenian genocide begun in 1915.
Turkey’s prime minister, anticipating the bill’s passage, called the move “incomprehensible” and pledged to “take steps.” Turkey has already suspended military cooperation, bilateral political agreement and economic contracts with France over the bill, and on Monday raised the possibility of withdrawing support for Euronews, an international news network based in France, in which Turkey’s national radio and television network holds a 15.5 percent stake.
After lengthy debate, the Senate voted 127 to 86 in favor of the legislation, while hundreds of Turks and Armenians demonstrated outside. If signed into law by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the legislation would call for up to one year in prison and a fine of about $58,000 for those who deny an officially recognized genocide. The bill does not make specific reference to the estimated 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered under the Ottoman Turks, but France recognizes only those deaths and the Holocaust as genocides and already specifically bans Holocaust denial.
In Turkey, the public affirmation of the Armenian genocide is treated as a crime, on the premise that it is an insult to Turkish identity. In March, the writer Orhan Pamuk was fined about $3,670 by a Turkish court for his statement in a Swiss newspaper that Turkey had killed “30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians.”
Turkey contends that Armenians were not the victims of systematic killings and argues that no more than 500,000 Armenians died, noting that many Turks also perished during those years of war. Thousands of Turks protested the bill in a demonstration in Paris on Saturday.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, warned of “permanent sanctions” if the bill passed, calling it a “black stain” on France.
On Monday he told reporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara, “If each parliament takes decisions containing its own views of history and implements them, a new era of Inquisition will be opened in Europe.”
While the legislation was widely backed by lawmakers from Mr. Sarkozy’s party as well as the opposition, a number of French politicians charged that the government ought not seek to dictate history. Some members of the opposition have also accused Mr. Sarkozy’s party of pandering to a sizable Armenian population ahead of the presidential election this spring.
About 500,000 French citizens claim Armenian descent, the largest such population in Europe; many have applauded the legislation. But those who claim Turkish descent number 400,000, and many have been up in arms.
The bill, brought by a lawmaker from Mr. Sarkozy’s party, has placed the government in a delicate position at a moment when France hopes to maintain Turkish cooperation on pressing matters, including the crackdown in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program, and to keep open relations as allies within NATO. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Bruno Lemaire, the agriculture minister, opposed the legislation.
In a letter to Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Sarkozy noted the legislation does not name the Armenian genocide and hoped for “reason and dialogue” with Turkey.
While Turkey has drawn Western praise as a model of Muslim democracy, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkish human rights advocates worry that the government has increasingly sought to repress freedom of speech and the press, jailing dozens of journalists, publishers and distributers, and buying and selling media properties.
Armenian advocacy groups around the globe push regularly for official recognition of the genocide. Nineteen nations, including France, have granted that recognition, as has the European Union. Slovenia and Switzerland treat denial of the genocide as a crime.
Scott Sayare reported from Paris, and Sebnem Arsu from Marseille, France.