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France brings Armenian genocide bill one step closer to law

The French Senate today approved a controversial bill making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide in what many see as a political ploy ahead of elections this spring.

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Yet as the Monitor noted in December, the only time France sees fit to raise this universal value is right ahead of its own elections: In 2001, it was just before elections that France recognized the Armenian genocide. In 2006, just before elections, French politicians nearly passed a five-year jail term for denying the genocide. Now, with the 2012 vote around the corner – voila! – a new law to jail Armenian deniers has taken shape.

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The French senate passed the law with only 126 votes to 86, meaning the lion's share of 348 senators demurred or expressed reservations, reports Le Monde. The law goes into effect if Sarkozy signs off in late February.

French Senator Fabienne Keller said many of her peers who didn't vote Monday agree a genocide did take place. But they refused to vote since their work is not to “legislate about history…o r decide historical facts.” Ms. Keller, when asked by France 24 television if the new laws would allow prosecution of deniers of the Rwandan genocide, or of Algerian massacres by France at the end of World War II, both sensitive cases here, said that just such questions are why “we are not morally allowed to define the rules … in the Turkish-Armenian case.”

Most historians agree a genocide occurred in Turkey prior to the end of World War I, using the United Nations' definition of the term. The US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henry Morgenthau, was distraught at the scale of the inhumanity, and wrote prolifically about the details in cables and articles. Yet the carnage was ignored for years as an inconvenient truth or lost in the overall shock of the “war to end all wars” – and earned the title of “the forgotten genocide.”

Turkey is officially adamant that the record is distorted or false.

That attitude is slowly and painfully changing, albeit in limited circles. Last year 150 intellectuals signed a letter apologizing to Armenians. Weeks ago at least 10,000 Turks marched in memory of the late Turkish writer Hrant Dink, who urged Turks to face up to history. However, in 2006 Mr. Dink said of French proposed denial laws that he’d rather dance up the Champs-Élysées denying the genocide than see such restrictive laws passed.

Both French and Turkish intellectuals argued that the effect of French laws will be to make it harder for Turkey to confront the emotional question and bring crack-backs against those in Turkey working toward that goal.

Nor has France been generally regarded among historians as a stellar example of facing history. Academics and intellectuals, in and out of France, and including the late Tony Judt of New York University, point to a French “serial denial” of its complicity with Nazi authorities in Vichy France, and its role in both colonial and post-colonial Africa.

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