Turkish fury likely over French bill on Armenian genocide

 

FRANCE IS bracing itself for a major diplomatic stand-off with Turkey after senators in Paris approved a draft law to make it illegal to deny that the mass killing of Armenians during the first World War was genocide.

The National Assembly, France’s lower house, voted overwhelmingly in December for the genocide-denial bill, prompting Ankara to freeze political and economic ties and temporarily recall its ambassador.

Hundreds of Turks and Armenians protested outside the senate building during yesterday’s debate on the bill, which would mean anyone denying the deaths amounted to genocide could face a one-year jail term and a fine of €45,000.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in 1915-16 in what is now eastern Turkey by the forces of the Ottoman empire. Turkey accepts that atrocities occurred but puts the death toll closer to 300,000 and rejects the term genocide. France formally recognised the killings as genocide in 2001 – one of more than 20 countries which have done so – but until now only Holocaust denial has been a crime here.

Ankara has threatened to introduce permanent sanctions against France if the bill becomes law.

“If every [EU] parliament implements decisions reflecting its own historical views, a new inquisition period will begin in Europe,” its foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday. “We all know what happened during the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately the revival of this is shameful for France.”

A non-binding senate recommendation last week said the law would be unconstitutional, while foreign minister Alain Juppé, an ally of the president, described the bill as “untimely”.

Although broke ranks, the proposal had the support of the two largest blocs in parliament – Mr Sarkozy’s UMP and the Socialist Party.

Attempting to defuse the rift, Mr Sarkozy sent a conciliatory letter to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the measure was “in no way aimed at any state or people in particular”.

He hoped “we can make reason prevail and maintain our dialogue, as befits allied and friendly countries.” French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valéro called on Turkey not to overreact, adding that Paris considered Ankara a “very important ally”.

Engin Solakoglu, first secretary at the Turkish embassy in Paris, said: “France can’t continue to say that Turkey is an important ally when it votes laws against it.”

Relations between France and Turkey have been strained throughout the Sarkozy presidency. The French president is a vocal opponent of Turkey joining the EU. He angered Ankara when, during a visit to Armenia last October, he declared solidarity with the Armenians and called on Turkey to recognise the genocide.

Turkey could not impose economic sanctions on France, given its World Trade Organisation membership and customs union accord with the EU. The row could cost France bilateral state contracts, however, and deprive France of an influential ally on the Middle East.

France is home to an estimated 600,000 citizens of Armenian descent. Critics of the government’s bill accuse Mr Sarkozy of playing for their votes.