French bill complicates Turkey's EU bid

The French National Assembly's move to outlaw denials of an Armenian genocide has enraged Turkey.

By a wide margin, the French parliament voted Thursday to make it a criminal act to deny an Armenian genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks, enraging Turkey and further deepening its suspicion of the European Union.

Islamic Turkey – which has sought for decades to join the EU and is now in membership negotiations – vowed retaliation against France that could disrupt billions of dollars in trade, even as both sides explore the limits of free speech.

The vote came the same day that Orhan Pamuk, the celebrated Turkish novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Charges of "denigrating Turkishness" against Mr. Pamuk – brought after he publicly spoke of the killing of 1 million Armenians during World War I, and 30,000 Kurds – were dropped earlier this year in a case seen as a test of Turkey's commitment to EU-driven reforms.

The two events get at the heart of contradictions in modern Turkey, where democratic and West-leaning EU aspirations often clash with history. The staunchly secular state – a full member of the NATO military alliance – casts itself as an indispensable bridge between East and West, but has yet to be accepted as such by Europe.

Many Turks see the genocide vote – a hot- button issue – as just one more obstacle to keep them out of the 25-member EU club.

"Turks find it very hard to swallow this; even Francophile Turks educated there are turning their backs on France," says Sami Kohen, a foreign affairs columnist for Milliyet newspaper. "A lot of us fear this will further encourage critics of the EU [who] will say: 'Enough is enough; we should give up on this EU.' "

Turkish lawmakers Wednesday proposed a counter-bill that would recognize an "Algerian genocide" carried out by colonial French forces in 1945.

Turkish columnists are also raising France's considerable role in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, as they seek to even the moral playing field.

Analysts say the French vote is likely to embolden Turkish nationalists and those who oppose EU membership for Turkey. Recent polls show that Turkish support for joining the EU has dropped from nearly 70 to around 50 percent now.

To become law, the bill must pass the French senate, which is not certain, and be signed by President Jacques Chirac. Punishment would include a one-year prison term, and a €45,000 ($56,500) fine, the same penalty now on French books for denying the Holocaust.

One Turkish newspaper headline took aim at France's reputation as the home of human rights and justice. It read: "Liberté, égalité, stupidité."

"French-Turkish relations, which have developed over centuries ... have been dealt a blow today as a result of the irresponsible false claims of French politicians who do not see the political consequences of their actions," Turkey's foreign ministry Abdullah Gul said in a statement.

"If this bill is passed, Turkey will not lose anything but France will lose Turkey," Mr. Gul had warned before the vote. "[France] will turn into a country that jails people who express their views."

The vote has become a political issue in France, where a majority is against Turkey's membership in the EU, where 400,000 ethnic Armenians live, and presidential elections are to be held in seven months. French exports to Turkey in 2005 totaled $5 billion.

During a visit to Armenia last week, Mr. Chirac stated that Turkey should not be allowed to join the EU unless it officially accepts that the death of more than 1 million Armenians, which took place in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, constitute a "genocide."

Though the French government said Thursday it opposed the legislation as "unnecessary and untimely," Chirac says Turkey must recognize the genocide before it joins the EU.

But while EU officials have been at pains to note that no such genocide criterion applies to Turkey, the sentiment matches widening unease in Europe over Turkey's EU application. Such fears in France are believed to be one reason the French last year rejected the proposed EU constitution.

"France has done its best to hamper Turkey's relations with the EU" and has been seeking "a kind of vengeance" against Turkey since the EU constitution failure, says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara, Turkey's capital. "So politically, the more damage they do to Turkey, the better."

Armenians say that 1.5 million died in 1915 in the first systematic genocide of the 20th century, though historians often count 1 million. Turkey officially argues that some 300,000 Armenians died in a partisan conflict that took just as many Turkish lives, when Armenians sided with invading Russian armies during World War I.

While Turkey has declared that it would open its files to historians, a host of Turkish writers and academics who have challenged official versions of events, sometimes using the word "genocide," have been charged with insulting the state by hard-line prosecutors.

Treading that line has been Mr. Pamuk, whose novels have dug into Turkey's imperial past to explore the contradictions and dilemmas of modern Turkey. The Nobel citation praised the work: "In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures." In February 2005, Pamuk told a Swiss newspaper that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

"What I said is not an insult, it is the truth," Pamuk said during his trial. "But what if it is wrong? Right or wrong, do people not have the right express their ideas peacefully?"

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