Lawmakers in France's lower house last week voted to make it a crime to deny the Turkish Ottoman genocide of Armenians in 1915, citing human rights and the protection of memory. Violators will receive a one-year jail sentence and a nearly $70,000 fine.
Diplomatic fallout has been severe, with Turkey withdrawing its ambassador to France amid an angry nationalist backlash. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said French massacres in colonial Algeria were themselves a genocide, and has since vowed “retribution” for the French law that treats with an issue in Turkey that has never been resolved.
But France’s righteous ire about the Armenian genocide couldn’t mostly be about French politics, about currying favor with an estimated 500,000 Armenian heritage French ahead of a tight election, could it?
Consider some relevant data points: In 2001, just ahead of national elections, France officially recognized the Armenian genocide. In fall 2006, again just before the elections that brought President Nicolas Sarkozy into office, French politicians threatened to criminalize the denial of the genocide of Armenians with a five-year prison sentence. Now, just ahead of presidential elections this spring, President Sarkozy’s ruling party led the first-time law to criminalize denying the 1915 genocide. * Correction: The original text misstated when France officially recognized the Armenian genocide.
Never mind that the French foreign minister registered a dissenting opinion over the law, passed on Dec. 22, and that French historians have disagreed with legislating truth on an event less clear than the Holocaust of mid-20th century. Or that the law may well not pass the French Senate when it is debated next year. Or that the Armenian patriarch in Turkey said this week he’d rather the French let the issue be worked out in Turkey, where it remains an unresolved and contentious issue.
“The law is complicating the work of Turkish progressives who have been trying to get Turkish society to address what actually happened in their history. That’s the saddest part,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “The most sensible intellectuals on the issue are being trampled in Turkey.”
Some 20 nations have passed resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide. But while individuals in some nations can be prosecuted for denying mass crimes against humanity or on anti-racial grounds, or for denying the Jewish Holocaust, France may be the first to criminalize the Armenian genocide.
The late Turkish writer and leading intellectual Hrant Dink, who did more than anyone to raise the issue of the massacre and deportations of anywhere from 700,000 to 1.5 million Armenians, said of the French proposed laws in 2006 that he’d rather dance up the Champs-Élysées denying the genocide than see the law passed in France.
Documentation of the genocide, which took place during or under cover of World War I, is substantial. The historical consensus is that a genocide – as defined by the United Nations as the “intent to destroy in whole or in part” an ethnic or religious peoples – happened. The US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., 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 World War I – and earned the title of “the forgotten genocide.”
Israel's Jewish majority has a special interest since Adolf Hitler, contemplating the invasion of Poland and already on his way to a “final solution,” is said to have remarked “who today thinks of the Armenian massacre?” However, given Israel's sour relations with Turkey, the timing of the debate has raised questions about its political motivations.
Critics in France note that the issue is particularly sensitive in Europe because it could harm Turkey's European Union accession. Sarkozy has been the most blunt European leader about his opposition to Turkish membership in the EU.
“Politicians on left and right may support the law for electoral reasons,” argues Gilles Manceron, a specialist in Paris on French colonialism. “The Élysées can use the project to pressure Turkey and justify its hesitation to allow Turkey to integrate into the EU.”
For decades, some of the bitterest fights over what the Armenians call their holocaust has taken place in Europe and the United States. Turkish and Armenian lobbies have circled like feeding sharks around school curricula and official declarations.
In 1987, I wrote a piece on a new human rights school curriculum in California that included the Armenian genocide, along with the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the Ukrainian famine, and Hitler's “final solution.” California's governor at the time was George Deukmejian, who has Armenian heritage. I’ve never received more favorable and unfavorable mail on any story. Entire classes of Armenian school children in California wrote letters of approval, while Turkish groups all over the US sent in criticism.
Prime Minister Erdogan, turning the tables, said last week, “Approximately 15 percent of the population in Algeria have been subjected to a massacre by the French starting from 1945. … This is genocide.”
Many intellectuals, historians, and critics find it a bit rich that French officials are touting the importance of memory and facing history. France spent years denying not only its actions in Algeria, but complicity with the Nazis in Vichy France by helping round up Jews.
After World War II, under a policy by then-President Charles De Gaulle to unify the country, French students were smothered with myths of heroic war resistance – part of what the late British historian Tony Judt calls France’s "tortured, long denied, and serially incomplete memory." The country only started facing these events when foreign historians, such as Columbia University's Robert Paxton did in 1972, began to detail not just the scale to which German policies were carried out, but also the alacrity with which the French did it.