Jan 3 2012
This is hardly the time for Sarkozy to be talking Turkey
by: Theodore Dalrymple
THE whole village is on fire, goes the old Romanian peasant saying,
but grandmother wants to finish combing her hair.
The euro is in danger, and with it the European Union, but President
Nicolas Sarkozy and his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, want
to pass a law forbidding the public denial in France of the Ottoman
genocide of the Armenians. This is not the kind of politicking of
which Europe has deep need just at the moment.
Sarkozy’s motives are not very difficult to fathom. There is soon to
be an election in France; he is trailing in the polls; there are
500,000 voters of Armenian descent in France; his opponents, the
Socialist Party, are in favour of such a law and indeed proposed one
back in 2006 that Sarkozy, via an emissary, promised Turkey — a
rising regional power and an increasingly important trade partner of
France — would not be passed by the French Senate (exactly what
happened last May). Now, with his back to the wall, he needs to
improve or repair his image among the Armenian-descended population.
…The proposed law was passed by the National Assembly, admittedly
with only 65 deputies present, in the week before Christmas (it still
needs to be ratified by the Senate to become law). It envisages fines
of up to E45,000 (about $57,000) and imprisonment for up to one year
for “extreme” public denial of the genocide; but in the context of
genocide, almost any denial is extreme.
It seems probable Sarkozy will support the law until after the
elections are over, and then let it fail again in the Senate.
The proposed law has, with good reason, been received very badly by
French academics and intellectuals, virtually all of whom accept there
was a genocide of the Armenians. A law already exists in France
against the denial of the Nazi genocide; but leaving aside whether it
is ever the business of the law to forbid any historical opinion
whatsoever, this law — la loi Gayssot — at least referred
principally to a genocide in which the French state of the time was
directly implicated. The new law, by contrast, threatens to be the
thin end of the wedge, with various groups clamouring for a similar
recognition of their own historical sufferings. After all, said the
eminent historian Pierre Nora in the newspaper Liberation, the whole
of history is a crime against humanity.
The Turkish response to the passage of the law was only too
predictable, and of course just as full of bad faith as was Sarkozy’s
(no doubt temporary) support of it. The Turkish government can hardly
claim to be a guardian of free speech on the matter: for example, the
Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu was arrested as a terrorist for
having published a translation of Does Europe Need Turkish
Intellectuals? by the French historian Vincent Duclert, which
describes the awakening of the conscience of Turkish intellectuals on
the matter of the Armenian genocide.
The very fury of the Turkish official response, moreover, and the
swift official resort to the tu quoque (what about you?) argument,
suggests a conscience that is ill at ease: as, of course, most
national consciences are.
It is not a convincing defence against murder, after all, that your
accuser is himself a murderer. Turkey is reported to be trying to drum
up official complaints by various former French colonies against
France, and in truth there is plenty to complain of, as the French
themselves now recognise.
In citing the case of Algeria as one of genocide, however, Turkey has
probably got it the wrong way round: from the narrowly juridical point
of view, according to which genocide is the deliberate and systematic
destruction of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group by
(among other means) the killing of members of that group, it would
make more sense for the French to accuse the Algerians of genocide
than the other way round, in so far as the pieds noirs, who were 10
per cent of the population, were completely, deliberately and
permanently eradicated by the nationalists. All this shows, however,
is the juridical uselessness of an expanded definition of genocide,
and its potential for raising heat without generating light.
Sarkozy must know, or at any rate ought to have known, that the
proposed law would not only sour relations between France and Turkey
at a time when Turkey is booming and France is in recession and in
dire need of economic dynamism, but that it would inflame in Turkey
the very nationalist sentiment that makes honest and dispassionate
examination of the past so difficult: and all this for the most
paltry, and in any case doubtful, electoral advantage.
In behaving as he has, and acting so blatantly in his own narrow
electoral interest, Sarkozy resembles a machine politician in search
of the trappings of power rather than a statesman. And he is about as
interested in historical truth about Armenia as the average Anatolian
peasant is in the French election results.
Of course he resembles all his European colleagues in his ambitious
frivolity: he is neither better nor worse than they. Faced by the
greatest economic crisis of the past 60 years or more, they are
patently more concerned with their own political survival than in
undoing the damage that they and their ilk have wrought in the past
decades. A crisis brings out the mediocrity in them.
Is this the fault of our political systems, or of human nature itself?
There are dangers, no doubt, in ascribing it wholly to either.