By Kerstin Gehmlich, Reuters
Turkey has to recognize Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks if it wants to enter the European Union, French Socialist presidential frontrunner Segolene Royal said on Wednesday.
Royal, who heads opinion polls to become the leftist party's candidate for next year's presidential poll, did not say whether she personally supported Turkey's EU membership, saying the French people would decide the issue in a referendum. "If Turkey should one day confirm its candidacy and enter Europe, it is obvious that it must recognize the Armenian genocide," Royal told a press conference.
Royal was speaking just a day before the French parliament was to vote on a bill that will impose prison terms on anyone who denies the 1915 genocide of Armenians took place. The bill, proposed by Royal's Socialist party, has strained relations between Paris and Ankara, with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan telling France to examine its own colonial past.
Ankara denies that some 1.5 million Armenians perished in a systematic genocide last century, saying large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks died in a partisan conflict raging at that time.
The European Commission has criticized the French bill, saying it undermines its efforts to persuade Turkey to increase freedom of expression by scrapping article 301 of the penal code used against Turkish intellectuals and writers. Turkey began EU entry talks last October and France is especially cool on taking in the large, mainly Muslim nation.
Royal said France had also found it painful to deal with darker chapters of its past. "It's not easy for certain countries to recognize a number of actions or episodes that are totally counter to the respect of human dignity," she said. "We have no lessons to teach others, but on the other hand, things must be done." Asked whether she personally supported Turkey's entry into the EU, Royal said the French people would decide this issue in a referendum, adding: "My opinion is that of the French people."
Royal's likely conservative competitor for the 2007 poll, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, is a long-standing opponent of Turkey's EU entry. Some deputies within Sarkozy's UMP party say there is no need for the controversial bill, but the mood within the party has toughened since President Jacques Chirac paid a state visit to Armenia last month and said Turkey should recognize the genocide before joining the EU.
UMP party officials expect around 60 of their 362 parliamentarians to back the motion, with most of the rest likely to skip the debate, handing victory to the Socialists.
Around 400,000 people in France have Armenian roots, making it a powerful lobby, particularly in the south of the country, and some top French politicians belong to the Armenian diaspora.