Anyone who hoped that calm and harmony might somehow prevail after the passage of a French bill criminalizing denial of the 1915 genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was mightily disappointed Monday night. Adoption of that draft legislation by France’s upper house of parliament late Monday sparked immediate outrage and protest from Turkey—and considerable concern about how that dispute might impact an array of critical international issues. The resumed uproar surrounding the pending French law means already strained relations between France and Turkey are likely to decay even more in the coming days and months—and at the very time when Ankara’s role as a partner with the European Union on hot topic dossiers like repression in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program is more important than ever.
The bill passed France’s upper chamber Monday night in a 127 to 86 vote that crossed party lines—yet also united parliamentarians on the left and right in opposition. That result sends the text towards procedural clearance en route to becoming law, following its approval by the lower house of parliament in December. The measure is worded to criminalize and punish denial of any officially recognized genocide with prison terms of up to a year, and fines of $59,000. But the fact that a similar law particular to the Shoah has been in place since 1990 means the new bill’s intent is to extend those penalties to negation of the mass killing of Armenians by Turks nearly a century ago as well—an event France officially recognized as genocide in 2001. Around 20 other nations categorize the slaying of what many historians generally calculate was 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-16 as genocide, though fewer have also criminalized its denial. Turkey has steadfastly rejected that the killing of Armenians was systematic, and says those victims—often cited as 300,000 to 500,000—were among the many people caught up in violence arising from Ottoman Empire’s break-up at the end of World War I.
Not surprisingly, the response of the Turkish government, many of its citizens, and ethnic Turks around the world was one of indignation and anger. Reiterating its protests and threats when the measure passed France’s lower house in December, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying “Turkey is committed to taking all the necessary steps against this unjust disposition, which reduces basic human values and public conscience to nothing.” Officials in Ankara also indicated they’d repeat their temporary December recall of Turkey’s ambassador from Paris, and move beyond already suspended political, military, and economic activities with France towards sterner measures. “You can also expect that diplomatic relations now will be at the level of charges d’affaires not ambassadors anymore.” Turkish Ambassador Tahsin Burcuoglu told reporters in Paris after Monday’s vote.
Still, by Tuesday morning, some evidence had arisen to suggest that though Ankara will register its anger and opposition to the French bill in no uncertain terms, Turkey may decide to stop short of engaging in a full diplomatic battle with Paris. ‘This is a re-emergence of the mentality of the Middle Ages. History is not made in parliaments,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told legislators from his AKP party Tuesday. “Our attitude will be one of reason and reserve, we are still in a period of patience. We will plan our actions based what happens next. Our sanctions will be step by step.”
If Erdogan’s comments seemed to clash with the more heated language arising elsewhere in Turkey, he wasn’t alone in sounding a different note from the prevailing chorus. Though its backers in France hailed the French text as a logical step in treating all officially recognized genocides in the same legal manner, it drew considerable opposition and criticism from other quarters. Ethicists, historians, and legislators have all expressed unease at seeing a parliament create legally binding analyses and definitions of historical events. Jean-Pierre Sueur, a member of Socialist-dominated upper house of parliament, challenged the bill with the view “it isn’t the business of the law, and especially criminal law, to interview in the field of history and to rule in terms of historical truth.”
Similarly, respected historian and Green party legislator Esther Benbassa argued “this hastily slapped together law will neither aid recognition of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, nor help bring together the Armenian and Turkish people.” But given Turkey’s unwavering rejection of the genocide—and its position that such a definition is an inexcusable insult to the nation’s honor—some of the text’s backers said it was necessary to give France’s 2001 recognition of the Armenian genocide symbolic and legal sense in the face of continuing denial of a tragic historical event. “The truth is not always strong enough to conquer lies,” Socialist legislator Yannick Vaugrenard told his upper house peers.
Be that as it may, many politicians and observers in France derided the push to pass the bill as a heavy-handed electoral ploy by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his fellow conservatives to prop up their troubled outlook heading into general elections next spring. Those skeptics say the text is aimed at endearing Sarkozy and the right to France’s 500,000-strong Armenian community—a claim Erdogan also nodded to in responding to Monday’s vote.
“We will not allow anyone to use Turkey for political mileage,” Erdogan told legislators. “I am addressing French politicians, intellectuals and the French people from here: this verdict is a massacre of freedom of expression.”
Though they didn’t go quite that far in their analysis of its motives, even some of Sarkozy’s cabinet aired discomfort with the bill and its possible consequences. During a Tuesday appearance on French TV channel Canal Plus, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé lamented the vote as “ill-timed”—a moderated echo of his reaction to the text in December as “useless and counter-productive,” and incapable to “change minds in Turkey.” But with the looming law nearly a done deal on Tuesday, Juppé stressed the importance of France and Turkey to rise above the current dispute and remain focused on wider, longer-term mutual objectives.
“We need good relations with (Turkey) and we need to get through this excessive phase,” Juppé said. “We have very important economic and trade ties. I hope the reality of the situation will not be usurped by emotions.”
Juppé’s position reflects his concern over geopolitical problems France and the European Union are seeking to deal with—in part by relying on Turkey’s unique position as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. The push to pass a total EU embargo on Iranian oil to increase pressure on Tehran to relinquish its nuclear development program, for example, will need full Turkish support to have desired impact. Meanwhile, Ankara’s support is vital to international – and European- efforts to force Damascus to end its bloody repression of pro-democracy protesters. (Turkey shares a 900 km border with Syria; it has hosted Syrian opposition leaders as well as defectors from the Syrian army.). And despite the hot reaction of Turks generally to Monday’s French vote, Erdogan’s manner of protesting the bill seemed to indicate he isn’t ready to throw the wider and more crucial geopolitical baby out with the troubled bathwater of Franco-Turkish relations.
“They are trying to woo votes by using enmity towards Turkey,” Erdogan commented. “The decision by the French Senate does not exist as far as we are concerned.”
–with reporting by Pelin Turgut/Istanbul