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France's Armenian genocide bill - Who? What? When? Where? Why?

media Members of the left-wing Workers' Party shout slogans as they gather to … Reuters

Relations between France and Turkey are in deep trouble thanks to a French bill making it illegal to deny that genocide against Armenians took place during World War I. Why have French politicians pushed the issue so far? And just how angry are Turkey’s leaders?

"France has reaffirmed its greatness and power, its devotion to universal human values," Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said in a letter to French leader Nicolas Sarkozy after the French Senate passed the bill and sent it to the president to be signed into law.

Predictably Turkey took a different view.

Armenia says up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in 1915, when the Turks accused them of rising up in support of Russia’s invasion during World War I.

Turkey says that the figure was no higher than 500,000 and that at least as many Turks were killed.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan slammed the vote as “discrimination and racism”, adding that it violates freedom of thought.

The new law would make it a crime to deny that genocide took place, punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to 45,000 euros.

Why do French politicians care?

There are about 500,000 ethnic Armenians in France and a similar number of people of Turkish origin.

But much of the Armenian community has been here since the early 20th century, many having become professionals or started businesses. Most of them speak good French and have taken French citizenship – models of intégration French-style.

Former minister Patrick Djevedjian is a member of Sarkozy’s UMP, although he has fallen out with the president. The bill’s sponsor, Valérie Boyer, is also a UMP member, representing a Marseille constituency with a large Armenian community.

By contrast the Turkish community, which is concentrated in the Paris region and Lyon, is in general less integrated into French society and, according to Hasan Ozertem of the Centre for Eurasian Studies in Ankara, only 20-25 per cent of its number have French nationality.

Added to that, many current or former Turkish nationals in France are Kurds who, whatever their feelings about the Armenian question, have little sympathy for Turkish nationalism.

So, with a presidential election approaching, there are more votes to be won on the Armenian side and, anyway, few voters of Turkish origin are likely to vote for the right.

How much support did the bill have?

Although it has been passed by both the lower house of the French parliament, controlled by the UMP and its allies, and the Senate, recently won by the Socialists and their allies, the proposed law has divided both the major parties.

A Senate committee even tried to prevent it being debated, leading the leaders of both parties’ Senate groups to hack a deal to persuade dissidents in their own ranks to abstain.

When it came to the vote only 57 out 132 UMP senators and 56 out of 130 Socialists backed it. Nine Socialists and 19 UMP members went so far as to vote against.

The Communists and their allies and the centrists were also split, although they officially supported the bill.

A number of senators either abstained or refused to take part in the vote.

Only the Greens and a cross-party group called the Rassemblement démocratique et social européen managed to maintain unity. They all voted against.

Although no other French law makes it a crime to deny genocide took place, there is legislation about history and what you can say about it:

  • A 1990 law proposed by Communist MP Jean-Claude Gayssot made denial of crimes against humanity as defined by the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II a crime;
  • A 2001 law proposed by Radical MP Christiane Taubira-Delannon declared the slave trade a crime against humanity and instructed educational institutions “to accord it the importance that it deserves”;
  • A controversial 2005 law proposed by junior minister Hamlaoui Mekachéra instructed educational institutions to “recognise the positive role of France’s presence overseas”.

How long has this been going on?

The Armenian question is not a new one in France. Caricatures accusing Turkey of atrocities were published after massacres in 1896, some of them appearing to invoke solidarity with the Christian Armenians against the Muslim Turks.

Turkey taking Germany's side in World War I did nothing to improve its image in France.

The Ottoman Empire in 1914
RFI/Anthony Terrade

France is the European country with the largest Muslim population in Europe, was a colonial power in Muslim-majority north Africa and has a history of intervention in the Middle East that dates back to the crusades. 

Sarkozy’s opponents frequently accuse him of exploiting colonialist prejudices, racism and Islamophobia to garner support from the far right.

That may be one reason why the Organisation of Islamic Conference was quick to condemn the new French bill as “a double standard in the treatment of major historical issues”.

In 2001 France passed a law declaring that the deaths of Armenians in 1915 was genocide, causing a major bust-up with Turkey that has soured relations ever since.

The new bill would make genocide denial a crime and, since the 2001 law is the only occasion on which a French law has used the term, its motivation is fairly clear.

Turkey, Armenia and region today
RFI/Anthony Terrade

The Turks argue that their history is none of France’s business and, anyway, people in glass houses …

As the latest bill made its way through the French parliament, Turkey’s leaders hit back with charges that France committed genocide during the war to keep Algeria under French rule.

"In Algeria, an estimated 15 per cent of the population had been subjected to the massacre of French from 1945 on. This is genocide," Erdogan said at a conference in Istanbul last month.

Why do the Turks still care?

Nobody denies that a lot of Armenians were killed in 1915, although the Turks claim that the figures have been exaggerated and that there was no attempt to wipe out the whole ethnic group.

The violence took place under the Ottoman empire, just before its defeat in the world war and break-up.

But the modern Turkish state’s relationship with minority ethnic and religious groups has been troubled ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded it.

His ideology, known as Ataturkism, based itself on secularism and Turkish identity.

Armenians, Greeks and Jews were recognised as minorities, thanks to the Treaty of Lausanne, in which World War I’s victors accepted the establishment of the new state, but the birth of the new country saw massacres and ethnic cleansing of Greeks – with similar action against Turks in Greece -, the adoption of Turkish as the only official language, and an effective refusal to recognise the existence of ethnic minorities such as the Kurds and religious groups such as the Alevi.

Ever since then Turkish nationalists have regarded the recognition of minority rights or even grievances as a threat to the integrity of the nation.

So the genocide accusation stirs up all sorts of emotions – nostalgia for lost Ottoman glories, suspicion of neo-imperialist interference, resentment of slurs on Turkish moral rectitude and fear of the fracturing of the country along ethnic lines.

Turks are also highly suspicious of Sarkozy since he blocked their country’s membership of the European Union, declaring that it belonged in “Asia Minor” not Europe. “What have the French got against us?” is a frequent question to European visitors.

Do all Turks deny that genocide took place?

A number of prominent intellectuals, including well-known author Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness" because they dared to challenge the official orthodoxy. Most of the cases have been dismissed.

Hrant Dink, the editor of an Armenian-language paper, was not so lucky. He was prosecuted three times and murdered by a Turkish nationalist in 2007.

Several human rights activists and intellectuals have received death threats for daring to raise the question.

The most ardent defenders of Ataturkism are not the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose origins are in the Islamist movement, but the country’s military, along with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The AKP presents itself as an Islamic version Germany’s Christian Democrats, reconciling religion and modernity, and its chief support comes from the rising bourgeoisie outside cosmopolitan Istanbul, culturally Muslim but pragmatic when it comes to doing business. It has been readier to compromise on questions like Kurdish rights and keener to join the European Union than the secular parties.

What will Turkey do?

“We have not yet lost hope,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan declared after the French Senate passed the bill and he incited intellectuals to press Sarkozy not to sign the bill into law.

Turkey might challenge the law in the International Court of Justice, invoking the 1948 UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, according to Yuksel Inan at Ankara’s Bilkent University.

But that could take years as both sides argue over whether genocide took place, he points out.

A concerned citizen, who might conceivably be encouraged by Ankara, could also go to the European Court of Human Rights and accuse France of an assault on the freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has threatened unspecified retribution.

That might include reducing diplomatic relations to the level of chargé d’affaires and suspending cultural and scientific cooperation.

There have been calls for a boycott of French goods but, with Franco-Turkish trade at 10.4 billion euros in the first 10 months of 2011, that is unlikely to go down well with those pragmatic Anatolian businessmen. Nor will it improve Turkey’s highly profitable relations with Europe.

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