Defying stern warnings from Turkey, the lower house of France’s parliament passed on Thursday a bill making it a crime to deny that the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide.
The bill was approved by a large majority of about 50 deputies present in the National Assembly. Most of them are members of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party.
The vote followed a four-hour debate broadcast live through the Internet and watched by members of France’s influential Armenian community as well as thousands of Turks demonstrating outside the parliament.
Under the adopted legislation, anyone in France publicly denying the Armenian genocide could face a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000).
The main author of the bill, UMP deputy Valerie Boyer, dismissed critics’ claims that it will infringe on freedom of expression and discourage debate on one of the darkest episodes of Turkey’s history.
“Freedom of speech and state propaganda are very different things,” Boyer said in an apparent reference to successive Turkish governments’ vehement genocide denial.
Another UMP parliamentarian, Patrice Calmejane, drew parallels between criminalizing public denial of the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. “Recognition of the Shoah has not prevented historians from doing their job,” he said.
Several other deputies voted against the bill. “Let’s leave it to historians to write history,” said Jean Bardet, also an UMP member.
“We are not trying to write history but to make an indispensable political act,” countered Patrick Devedjian, a prominent French politician of Armenian descent.
Turkey responded to the unprecedented measure by recalling its ambassador in Paris and imposing a raft of political and military sanctions on France. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the bill’s passage will open “very grave and irreparable wounds” in Turkish-French relations. “From now on we are revising our relations with France,” he said.
The AFP news agency also quoted Erdogan as saying that Ankara will suspend mutual political visits as well as joint military projects with its NATO ally. Turkey will now decide on a case-by-case on every military demand made by EU member France to use Turkish airspace and military bases, he said, and will from now on reject any French demand for its military vessels to dock at Turkish ports.
“France has trampled on the principles of its own revolution: Liberty, equality and fraternity,” Erdogan declared, according to the DPA news agency. “I ask you: Is there freedom of thought and freedom of expression in France? The answer is, ‘No.’ France has abolished the spirit of free discussion,” he charged.
More than 3,000 Turkish expatriates living in France demonstrated outside the National Assembly building in Paris during the debate to add their voice to Ankara’s fury. “I don't understand why France wants to censor my freedom of expression,” Yildiz Hamza, president of the Montargis association that represents 700 Turkish families in France, told
Boyer denounced the protest. “I'm astonished that at the moment when Turkey is knocking on the door of the European Union, this great country is inciting its nationals to protest in France,” she said in her parliament speech.
The French lower house of parliament already passed a bill criminalizing the Armenian genocide denial in 2006, but it was finally rejected by the Senate in May of this year. The new bill too needs the Senate’s approval in order to become a law.
Sarkozy signaled support for its passage when he visited Yerevan in October. This stance is widely linked with his plans to win a second term in office in next year’s 2012 presidential election.
France has an estimated 500,000 citizens of Armenian origin. The leaders of the French-Armenian community have been lobbying hard for the criminalization of the genocide denial.