French Bill Outrages Turkey

French lawmakers approve a bill making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. To become law the bill needs approval from the upper house and President Chirac, who oppose it

PARIS — French lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill making it a crime to deny that mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I amounted to genocide.

Turkey quickly objected, with its Foreign Ministry saying that the decision "dealt a heavy blow" to Turkish-French relations and "created great disappointment in our country."

Deputies in France's National Assembly voted 106-19 for the bill, which has prompted outrage in Turkey and embarrassed the French government. The issue has become intertwined with Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.

In Brussels, the European Commission warned soon after the vote that the bill — if approved by the French legislature's other chamber and signed into law — would hamper reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn "has made very clear over the last few days that if this law indeed enters into force it would prevent dialogue and the necessary debate to reconcile the different opinions on this subject," said EU spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy.

The bill, which was introduced by the opposition Socialists, must still be passed by the Senate and be signed by President Jacques Chirac. France's minister for European affairs, Catherine Colonna, said just before the vote that the government did not look favorably on the bill.

"It is not for the law to write history," she said in parliament.

Turkey vowed to use "all of our efforts and actions at every level" to seek to prevent the bill from becoming law.

France has already recognized the killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1919 as genocide; under Thursday's bill, those who contest it was genocide would risk up to a year in prison and fines of up to $56,000.

Armenians say the killings were part of an organized campaign to force Armenians out of what is now eastern Turkey. However, Turkey says that the death toll is inflated and contend that many people died in civil unrest during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

A similar bill was shelved in the spring amid pressure from the Turkish government. It was presented by the opposition Socialists, and most lawmakers from Chirac's ruling conservative party UMP did not take part in Thursday's vote.

Turkey supporters abruptly left the parliament building after the vote without speaking to reporters. Outside, a few dozen protesters of Armenian descent celebrated.

"The memory of the victims is finally totally respected," said Alexis Govciyan, head of a group coordinating Armenian organizations in France. "The dignity of all their descendants and all of our compatriots will now be taken into account in a republican way, with the rules and values that govern our country."

Turkish reactions

The vote on the bill in Paris dominated front pages of most Turkish newspapers, with some reporting that thousands of Turks have promised to go to France and deny genocide in hopes of getting arrested if the bill passes. Two TV networks in Turkey broadcast the parliamentary floor debate live.

Turkey's chief negotiator in European Union membership talks said Thursday that the French bill flew in the face of freedom of expression. Ali Babacan said Ankara saw the situation as ironic, given that the European Union is demanding Turkey expand freedom of expression.

"This is violating one of the core principles of the European Union, which is freedom of expression," Babacan told a think tank session in Brussels. "Leave history to historians."

French governing party lawmaker Patrick Devedjian told Thursday's session: "Turkey has no lesson to teach us about the repression of opinion."

He noted that the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, who has sharply criticized the bill, had adopted a law that punishes the admission of a genocide with time in prison in Turkey.

Chirac, during a visit to Armenia last month, said the bill "is more of a polemic than of legal reality" but he also urged Turkey to recognize "the genocide of Armenians" in order to join the European Union. "Each country grows by acknowledging its dramas and errors of the past," Chirac said.

Some Socialists, including former Culture Minister and lawmaker Jack Lang, have expressed their opposition. He said the bill was unconstitutional and would infringe on freedom of expression.

It is up to the French government to schedule the vote in the Senate. Govciyan said his group would discuss with government officials ways to ensure it reaches the Senate floor despite government opposition to the bill.

(Posting date 25 October 2006)

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