France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Armenia on Thursday on a two-day state visit which he said will highlight “exceptional ties” between the two nations and should help to expand their bilateral trade.
After an official greeting ceremony at Yerevan’s Zvartnots international airport, Sarkozy and President Serzh Sarkisian headed to the nearby town of Echmiadzin for a meeting with Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Sarkozy lit a candle in a local cathedral before proceeding to the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan. He put flowers at its eternal fire and planted a tree in the surrounding park to pay his respects to some 1.5 million Armenians massacred in Ottoman Turkey during World War One.
Sarkozy reaffirmed France’s recognition of the massacres as genocide and urged Turkey to do the same. “Turkey, which is a great country, would be honorable to revisit its history like the other great countries in the world have done: Germany, France,” he told journalists.
“The genocide of Armenians is a historic reality that was recognized by France. Collective denial is even worse than individual denial,” he said, according to the AFP news agency. “We are always stronger when we look our history in the face, and denial is not acceptable.”
Asked whether France should adopt a law prosecuting anyone who denies the genocide, Sarkozy replied that “if Turkey revisited its history, looked it in the face, with its shadows and highlights, this recognition of the genocide would be
sufficient.” “But if Turkey will not do this, then without a doubt it would be necessary to go further,” AFP quoted him as saying.
In an interview with the Armenian news agency Mediamax given ahead of his trip, Sarkozy said, “I could not even think of not going to Armenia, which is so close to Armenia. The fact that this visit will coincide with the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence will make it even more symbolic.”
“This visit is also a way of expressing France’s gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of French people of Armenian extraction, without whom France would not have been the France we have today,” added Sarkozy, who will be up for reelection next year.
The official French delegation accompanying Sarkozy comprised several prominent individuals of Armenian descent, including singer Helene Segara and former football star Youri Djorkaeff. They will be joined on Friday by Charles Aznavour, the world-famous French crooner who also serves as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland.
The Armenian and French presidents will inaugurate on Friday Aznavour’s new Yerevan house built by the Armenian government. Sarkozy will also deliver a speech at the nearby France Square. It was named after his country during his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s 2006 visit to Armenia.
Sarkozy’s trip began just one week after he received Sarkisian at the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. He will pay brief visits to neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia on Friday.
In his interview with Mediamax, Sarkozy also called for a quick resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “Now is the time for the parties to take the risk of peace because there is no greater danger than a continued status quo,” he said, echoing joint statements on the issue issued by him, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The United States, France and Russia have for years been trying to broker a Karabakh settlement within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group.
Analysts said that Karabakh will therefore be high on the agenda of Sarkozy’s talks in Yerevan and Baku. Artur Ghazinian, director of the Yerevan-based Center for European Studies, suggested that with Moscow reportedly not planning to organize more Armenian-Azerbaijani talks in the coming months Paris could take on a more active role in the peace process.