French pass bill that punishes denial of Armenian Genocide

October 13, 2006
Source: International Herald Tribune

By Thomas Crampton

PARIS, Oct. 12 — The National Assembly, defying appeals from Turkey, approved legislation Thursday that would make it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I were genocide.

The legislation, which was criticized by Turkey’s government and some European Union officials, could further complicate talks for Turkey’s admission to the Union.

With 106 deputies voting in favor and 19 against, the law sets fines of up to 45,000 euros, or about $56,000, and a year in prison for denying the genocide. Of the 577 members of the Assembly, 4 abstained and 448 did not vote at all, raising the question of whether there would be enough political will to push the law through the Senate.

Scholars and most Western governments have recognized the killing of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1919 as genocide. But the subject is still taboo in Turkey, and charges have been pressed against writers and others who have brought attention to the genocide, including Orhan Pamuk, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

"The Turkish people refuse the limitation of freedom of expression on the basis of groundless claims," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "With this draft law, France unfortunately loses its privileged status in the eyes of Turkish public opinion."

Ali Babacan, the Turkish economy minister and the country’s lead negotiator on talks with Europe, said he could not rule out consequences for French companies.

"What happened in France today, we believe, is not in line with the core values of the European Union," Mr. Babacan said, adding that the government would not encourage a boycott of French goods.

In Brussels, the European Union warned that the law could have a harmful effect on negotiations. "It would prohibit dialogue which is necessary for reconciliation on the issue," said Krisztina Nagy, a spokeswoman for the Union. "It is not up to law to write history. Historians need to have debate."

Turkey’s potential membership in the European Union has been a hot political topic here ahead of the presidential elections next spring. The leading candidates to succeed President Jacques Chirac, including Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, have agreed that Turkey must acknowledge the genocide before gaining membership. But the new legislation has been more of a campaign issue in France, which has one of Europe’s largest Armenian populations.

Although most of France’s top politicians supported the European Union’s planned constitution, the French rejected it last year in a referendum that was also seen as a vote against further European expansion. The problem for politicians seeking to succeed Mr. Chirac is how to oppose Turkish entry without taking on the xenophobic tones of the far right.

After the vote, Mr. Chirac’s government, which opposed the legislation, expressed eagerness for dialogue with Turkey and said the bill was unnecessary and inopportune. "We are very committed to dialogue with Turkey, as well as to the strong ties of friendship and cooperation which link us to that country," said Jean-Baptiste Mattéi, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

Ms. Royal, who is the leading Socialist candidate for president, has loudly supported the bill. On Wednesday, she reiterated that "obviously," Turkey would have to recognize the genocide, and added, "My opinion is that of the French people."

Two other senior Socialists, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Jack Lang, had reservations about the bill.

On the center right, Mr. Sarkozy has opposed Turkey’s joining the European Union, but he kept silent about the genocide bill, which was sponsored by the Socialists.

A leading Turkish analyst of the European Union, Can Baydarol, said that although the decision would seem to have no direct effect on Turkey’s relations with Europe, the hostile attitude of French lawmakers demonstrated some of the obstacles to Turkish membership.

"Now people see that more than the technical details, political maneuvers will mark the years-long process on the way to full membership," he said.

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.