Turkey-France Ties Fray Over Armenia Genocide Bill


Atlanta Journal Constitution

Dec 22 2011

PARIS – Ties between France and Turkey, strategic allies and trading
partners, abruptly unraveled Thursday after French legislators passed
a bill making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians
by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago constitute genocide.

The bill strikes at the heart of national honor in Turkey, which
denies the genocide label and insists the 1915 massacres occurred
during civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, with losses on
both sides. But it’s seen as a matter of principle for some French
politicians, and a matter of long-overdue justice for the half
a million people in France of Armenian descent, many of whom had
relatives among the 1.5 million Armenians killed.

The French bill still needs Senate approval, but after it passed
the lower house, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
halted bilateral political and economic contacts, suspended
military cooperation and ordered his country’s ambassador home for
consultations. Turkey argues France is trampling freedom of expression
and that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a vote-getting mission
before April presidential elections.

France formally recognized the 1915 killings as genocide in 2001,
but provided no penalty for anyone refuting that. The bill passed
Thursday sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of
euro45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or “outrageously minimize”
the killings, putting such action on par with denial of the Holocaust.

The diplomatic riposte by Turkey over the vote by lawmakers in France’s
lower house, the National Assembly, may get even tougher. It hurts
ties as both NATO members are involved in international efforts for
peace from Syria to Afghanistan.

“Our measures and precautions will come to life stage-by-stage
according to France’s position,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.

France expressed regret over Turkey’s response.

“It is important, in the current context, that we keep the paths of
dialogue and cooperation open,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in
a statement.

Strains have plagued the relationship between Paris and Ankara in
recent years, in large part because Sarkozy opposes mostly-Muslim
Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. The bill reached the French
parliament after Sarkozy visited Armenia in October and urged Turkey,
“a great country” to “honor itself by revisiting its history like
other countries in the world have done.”

But for it to become law, the Senate must also pass the bill. There is
a small window of time to quickly do so, between Jan. 10 and Feb. 24
when a four-month freeze on all but the most critical legislation goes
into effect ahead of spring presidential and legislative elections.

There’s no guarantee this will be a speedy process. A similar piece
of legislation passed by the lower house in 2006 took five years to
reach the Senate, which rejected it.

Most historians contend the killings of the Armenians constituted the
first genocide of the 20th century. But the issue is dicey for any
government that wants a strong alliance with Turkey, a rising power.

In Washington, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling
the killings genocide.

An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France, and many have pressed
to raise the legal statute regarding the massacres to the same level
as the Holocaust by punishing the denial of genocide.

But the Turkish premier called the legislation’s approval “unjust
and unfortunate,” adding, “There is no genocide in our history,
we do not accept it.”

“As of now, we are canceling bilateral level political, economic
and military activities,” Erdogan announced. “We are suspending all
kinds of political consultations with France” and “bilateral military
cooperation, joint maneuvers are canceled as of now.”

The Turkish prime minister said requests for military overflights or
landings on Turkish territory would be assessed on a case-by-case
basis while permissions granted to French military vessels to dock
at Turkish ports would be canceled.

Military cooperation between France and Turkey was suspended in
2006 after the lower-house bid in France to punish deniers of an
Armenian genocide. Military cooperation was gradually resumed but
remains limited.

Turkey did not limit its actions to ties with Ankara. Sounding almost
vindictive, Erdogan threatened to denounce France in Africa and the
Middle East.

“We will inform Africa, we will inform the Middle East and when
traveling in many countries we will talk about genocides which they
have been trying to make (the world) forget about,” he said. It was
a reference to France’s colonial past in Algeria, where massacres
were carried out, and to Rwanda where some claim a French role in
the 1994 genocide.

It was clear long before the vote – easily passed with a show of
hands – that France was on a collision course with Turkey. Ankara had
threatened to remove Ambassador Tahsin Burcuoglu if French lawmakers
did not desist and warned of “grave consequences” to political and
economic ties.

The ambassador said he is leaving on the first flight out of Paris
Friday morning. He said that diplomacy is never black and white.

“There are always grey pages but now, these pages become blacker and
blacker,” he told reporters in Paris on Thursday night.

Erdogan, a devout Muslim who over the years raised the profile of
Turkey’s governing Islamic-rooted party, suggested France’s bid
to punish those who deny the Armenian genocide was in part a way
to lure far-right voters to Sarkozy’s camp by kindling the fires
of Islamophobia.

“This decision is cause for concern not only for France where there
are efforts to make gains through enmity toward Turks and Turkey,
and in general terms, through Islamaphobia, but also for Europe and
principles defended by Europe,” he said.

“I ask: Is there freedom of expression in France? Let me answer it
myself: No. (This decision) has eliminated the environment of free

Some French lawmakers expressed outraged at Turkey’s attempt to sway
their vote and a demonstration by Turks living in France outside the
National Assembly.

“The fact that we are subject to pressures … in front of the
National Assembly where the heart of the (French) Republic beats,
I find that particularly shocking,” said Valerie Boyer, author of
the measure and lawmaker from Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party.

“Laws voted in this chamber cannot be dictated by Ankara,” said
Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a deputy from the New Center party.

For many French Armenians, the legislation’s advancement meant a
swell of relief.

“Our ancestors can finally rest in peace,” said 75-year-old Maurice
Delighazarian, who said his grandparents on both sides were among
the victims of the 1915 massacre.


Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Catherine Gaschka
contributed to this article.


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