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By Emma Charlton, Agence France Presse
Angry scenes broke out in the French National Assembly on Thursday after lawmakers were forced to call off a vote on a bill that would make it a punishable offence to deny the Armenian genocide.

Debate on the opposition bill -- which has sparked a diplomatic row between France and Turkey -- started late, and the time allocated for its discussion ran out before a vote could take place. Discussion of the controversial text will now be pushed back to October at the earliest, under the parliamentary calendar.

Shouts filled the assembly as the bill's supporters accused members of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of stalling debate. Dozens of lawmakers – angrily yelling "Vote! Vote!" -- had to be evacuated from the building after the leader of the assembly declared the session closed.

Earlier Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy came out openly against the bill, which follows on from a 2001 French law officially recognizing the Turkish massacres of Armenians at the end of World War I as genocide. "If adopted, this text would be seen as an unfriendly gesture by the great majority of the Turkish people," he told lawmakers, warning its adoption would have "serious political consequences and weaken our position not only in Turkey but across the entire region."

"Turkey is a leading economic and trade partner... We cannot accept this bill," Douste-Blazy said.

The bill would make punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros (57,000 dollars) the crime of denying that Turkish troops committed genocide against the Armenians. The same punishment is on the statute books for people who deny that the Jewish Holocaust took place.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- backed by Turkish business leaders and unions -- appealed this month to France to block the contentious new bill, warning of the threat to bilateral relations. Ankara briefly recalled its ambassador from Paris for consultations this month, amid rising tensions over the bill.

While the 2001 law was passed when the Socialist Party had a majority in the National Assembly, the new bill could only pass with support from ruling party deputies – who had been given a free vote on the text. The bill has provoked divisions within both the UMP and the Socialist Party. Former Socialist minister Jack Lang said it would "undermine the efforts of those in Turkey who are trying to bring Ankara to recognize its history", and warned against a trend towards "criminalizing public expression".

There has been much critical discussion recently in France about so-called "historical" laws which seek to authorize an official version of past events. In January President Jacques Chirac asked for a controversial law recognizing the "positive role" of colonialism to be struck off the statute books.

(AP-Photolur photo: A French-Armenian woman protesting in Paris in September 2005 against Turkey's membership in the European Union.)
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