Deutsche Presse Agentur, Reuters
The French government on Tuesday distanced itself from a bill, drawn up by the opposition Socialist Party, that would make it a crime to deny that Turkey had committed genocide against the Armenian people more than 90 years ago.
The bill, which is to be examined Thursday in the National Assembly, "does not involve the government" and "is not necessary," foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told journalists in Paris.
The proposed law has provoked rage in Turkey, which has threatened to carry out economic boycotts against French companies. In 2001, bilateral relations suffered a similar setback when France passed a law in which the murder of thousands of Armenians in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire was characterized as "genocide."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday said the proposed law was a blow against freedom of speech and that a "populist and cheap game" was being played by French politicians. "This wrong move will change nothing for Turkey but it will change a lot for France ... When did it become France's duty to get involved in a problem between Turkey and Armenia? The world is not a campus for colonizers any more. That era is over," Erdogan said.
It was not clear if the bill would receive enough votes to pass through the National Assembly. The majority UMP party said most of its deputies would not take part in the vote.
Meanwhile, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday he had set three conditions for Turkey to avoid the vote in a telephone call with Erdogan. "The first is that there is a bilateral commission between Armenia and Turkey which has equal representation, so that these two countries can conduct the work of acknowledging history," he told France Inter radio. "The second condition is that Turkey reopen its borders with Armenia. And the third condition is that Turkey gives up its penal law which forbids people speaking of the genocide in Turkey."
Sarkozy, conservative frontrunner for the presidential race and a long-standing opponent of Turkey's European Union entry, said he was not sure whether he had convinced Erdogan but added that the Turkish premier had taken note of them.
According to officials at the Turkish prime minister's office, Erdogan defended Turkey's position in the phone conversation with Sarkozy. "We are the open and transparent side. We have been unable to receive the necessary response (from Armenia) to our well-intended proposal to set up a joint commission, and Article 301 has nothing to do with this issue," the officials quoted Erdogan as saying.
The dispute comes less than two weeks after French President Jacques Chirac, on a visit to Armenia, said he wanted Turkey to admit the Armenian genocide before it could join the European Union, a condition no one else has ever set for Ankara.
The EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on Monday that France's parliament could do serious harm to EU-Turkey relations if it votes to make it a crime to deny Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. Adopting the Socialist opposition bill would also deal a blow to efforts by Turkish intellectuals to re-examine a painful and sensitive episode in their country's history, Rehn told Reuters in a telephone interview.
He said he would be in contact with the French government before Thursday's vote to point out the consequences. "The French law on the Armenian genocide is of course a matter for French lawmakers, but there is a lot at stake for the European Union as well, and the decision may have very serious consequences for EU-Turkey relations," said Rehn, who is in charge of Turkey's EU membership negotiations.
"Such a law would have counter-productive consequences because it would say to the Turks that there is nothing to discuss. Here you have the final truth and if you happen to deny it you end up in prison in an EU member state," he said.