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AP, Reuters, AFP
The European Union on Friday criticized a French bill that would make it a crime to deny that the World War I-era killings of Armenians in Turkey were genocide, describing it as counterproductive at a critical stage in Turkey's EU entry talks.

"We don't think that this decision at this moment is helpful in the context of the European Union's relations with Turkey," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. "This is not the best way to contribute to something we think is important."

On Thursday, French lawmakers - in a 106-19 vote - approved a bill that would criminalize denying the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I amounted to genocide, but the bill still needs to be approved by the French Senate and the president to become law. Turkey denounced the French lawmakers' decision, saying it would harm bilateral relations.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the bill, "instead of opening up the debate, would rather close it down, and thus have a negative impact." "We don't achieve real dialogue and real reconciliation by ultimatums, but by dialogue. Therefore, this law is counterproductive," Rehn told reporters.

Rehn said it came at a bad time as the 25-member bloc was trying to avoid "a train crash" in negotiations with the predominantly Muslim nation. "The real issue now is to avoid a train crash because of a slowing down of the reform process (in Turkey) and because of Turkey not yet meeting its obligations" in EU entry requirements, Rehn said.

Barroso said "the very sensitive issue" of Armenia should be made by "Turkish society itself." "Frankly, we don't think it is helpful that another parliament outside takes a legislative action on a matter of historical interpretation and analysis," he said.

The Armenia genocide issue has become intertwined with ongoing debate in France and across Europe about whether to admit Turkey into the EU. France is home to hundreds of thousands of people whose families came from Armenia. France has already recognized the 1915-1919 killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians 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 45,000 euros ($56,000).

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday the EU is not in a position to "preach" to Turkey on human rights after France's move to block free speech with the controversial bill. "Those who are trying to preach to us should keep their advice for themselves," Erdogan said in a televised speech.

European Union pressure is mounting on Ankara to either scrap or amend Article 301 of its penal code, which has landed a string of intellectuals in the courts for "insulting Turkishness." Most cases, including one against novelist Orhan Pamuk who was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, have resulted from remarks the defendants made to contest the official line on the Armenian massacres, which Ankara fiercely rejects amounted to genocide.

Erdogan also said Turkey was studying retaliatory measures against France following the approval of the law. "Turkey's foreign trade volume with France is $10 billion and this is equal to 1.5 percent of France's whole foreign trade volume. We're going to make the proper calculations and then take necessary steps," Erdogan said in a speech.

He did not elaborate, but said the government would take measures within Turkey and abroad.

Hundreds of French firms such as Renault and Carrefour have large investments in Turkey, employing thousands of Turkish workers. This week Turkish consumer groups and some trade unions called for boycotts of French products.

The Turkish Consumers Union called on its members to begin boycotting French products, starting on Friday with energy group Total. "The boycott will continue increasingly until the law on the so-called Armenian genocide is annulled," the union's chairman Bulent Deniz said in a press release.

But economists questioned the effectiveness of a boycott on France, which is one of biggest economies in the world, as Turkey accounts for only 1.3 percent of France's exports. Past Turkish boycott calls against other countries had an effect only for a short time. Big Turkish business have largely opposed a boycott and Economy Minister Ali Babacan said on Thursday the government would not encourage it either.

Turkish newspapers, meanwhile, joined the government on Friday in condemning the French bill. "Genocide of thought," the mass-circulation Hurriyet said on its front page. "106 stupid men," the popular daily Vatan blared, describing the lawmakers who voted for the bill as "Les Miserables", after French author Victor Hugo's classic novel.

The mass-circulation Sabah ran, in French, the headline "J'accuse" -- after the title of another French author's, Emile Zola's, landmark 1898 article in favor of human rights --and described the bill as "an unjustified decision that has hurt all Turks".

Many commentators said the bill aimed to thwart Ankara's membership talks with the European Union, which began last year amid widespread skepticism on whether this mainly Muslim country has a place in Europe. "The bill aims to booby trap Turkey's path to EU membership rather than touch our sore spot concerning the allegations of Armenian genocide," a commentator in Sabah said.
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