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.

Tigran Mehrabyan/PanARMENIAN/AP
Activists of an Armenian youth group gather at the French Embassy in Yerevan to express their gratitude to France's parliament for passing a bill that outlaws denial of Armenian genocide, in Yerevan, Armenia, Tuesday.

France poked Turkey in the eye last night by approving a new "genocide denial" bill, then this morning urged Turkey to “remain calm.”

But Turkish reaction was not especially calm.

After the French Senate voted in the late hours Monday to criminalize a denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide – punishable with a year in jail and a $58,000 fine – Turkey’s ambassador to France said he will leave.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today called the new law “discriminatory” and “racist” and a “massacre of free expression,” and pointed out that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ancestors had once sought refuge in Turkey.

Something’s definitely out of whack in this diplomatic fallout. But it isn’t entirely Turkey’s inability to face its Ottoman past, which includes the killing or deporting of some 750,000 to 1.5 million Armenians during World War I.

Even French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, a member of the ruling party, thinks the new French law is a bad idea and “ill-timed.”

“I’m sure we’ll find again a constructive relationship,” Mr. Juppe told French TV. “I put out my hand and I hope it will be shaken one day.”

In fact, there are actual reasons why Turkey might see fit to remain calm, as Juppe urges. This law really isn’t about Turkey. It’s French politics.

Turkish leaders take the genocide law as a matter of national dishonor and high principles, and point to French slaughters in Algeria, and speak of rights, including of independent thought, that France champions. It is highly emotional.

Yet in France the new genocide law is seen with considerable cynicism, and with little emotion or much regard. It comes just ahead of national elections this spring. Along with its slightly craven appeal to the hundreds of thousands of French-Armenian voters, for whom the issue has always been a defining one, the law also gives President Sarkozy a way to remind conservatives that he’s against a Muslim country joining Europe.

Mr. Sarkozy has a problem with a poll-surging Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, who accuses him of overseeing an “Islamization” of France.

The bill is "not entirely free of ulterior electoral motives considering that there is a 500,000-strong French Armenian community in France," as the French daily Liberation put it.

French politicos have portrayed their new legal concoction as part of a long, historic fight against a “poisonous denial” by the human race of various mass murders.

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.

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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