France’s upper house of parliament approved late on Monday a government-backed bill that makes it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, despite Turkey’s threats to impose more sanctions on Paris.
The Senate backed the bill, which was passed by the French lower house on December 22, by a vote of 127 to 86 after a more than seven-hour heated debate that cut across party lines. President Nicolas Sarkozy should sign the text into law by the end of February.
Sarkozy’s government officially acknowledged its support for the controversial measure during the debate, with Patrick Ollier, the French minister in charge of relations with the parliament, openly urging senators to vote for it. Ollier said it will help to eliminate the “poison” of genocide denial in the country.
"Denial is the supreme insult to the collective memory that we share," he said. "It sweeps away the peoples' suffering and condemns the victims to be forgotten. Those who encourage it are fomenting hatred that could have been and should have been extinguished with time."
Armenia swiftly welcomed the development. “This day will be written in gold not only in the history of friendship between the Armenian and French peoples, but also in the annals of the history of the protection of human rights worldwide, and will further consolidate the existing mechanisms of prevention of crimes against humanity,” Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said in a late-night statement. “France re-affirmed its pivotal role as a genuine defender of universal human values.”
The French government and lawmakers pressed ahead with the bill’s passage despite fresh sanctions threatened by Ankara. "We have previously determined the steps to be taken if the bill is finally adopted. No one should doubt it," state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as saying hours before the debate.
Predictably, Turkish reaction to the Senate decision was furious. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin told CNN-Turk television that it is "a great injustice and shows a total lack of respect for Turkey."
"If the law is adopted by the government, the consequences will be permanent," the spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Paris, Engin Solakoglu, told the AFP news agency. "France is in the process of losing a strategic partner."
Reuters quoted Tahsin Burcuoglu, the Turkish ambassador to France, as saying that he will “most probably” be again recalled to Ankara. “It will be diplomacy on charge d'affaires [level,] not embassies," he said.
The law criminalizing genocide denial was backed by most senators representing Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and the main opposition Socialist Party, which has the largest faction in the Senate. Before the final vote the Senate majority rejected several motions put by the bill’s opponents, among them most members of a Senate committee on legal affairs.
The committee chairman, Jean-Pierre Sueur, criticized the bill as unconstitutional, saying that it could be rejected by France’s constitutional court. Sueur said it specifically runs counter to constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech and academic research.
Ollier disagreed, saying that the new legislation is “indispensable for completing the 2001 law” with which France officially recognized the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide. He argued that France had already passed a law criminalizing the denial of the Jewish Holocaust. “There should be no hierarchy of genocides,” added the minister.
Socialist Senator Bernard Piras likewise made a case for filling this “legal void.” “Why should we punish the denial of the Holocaust but not the Armenian genocide?” he told fellow legislators.
Sueur countered that the worldwide recognition of the Holocaust was the result of the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi Germany’s leaders. There were no universally accepted court rulings in the case of the Armenian massacres, he said.
Most senators opposed to the bill asserted that the 1915-1918 slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians did constitute genocide. But they said the French parliament should “leave history to historians.” Some of them also accused Sarkozy of seeking French-Armenian votes ahead of presidential elections scheduled for this spring.
France is home to an influential ethnic Armenian community numbering between 500,000 and 600,000 members. The vast majority of them are descendants of genocide survivors who took refuge in France after World War One.
Among them were the paternal grandparents of UMP Senator Natacha Bouchart, who delivered an emotional speech during Monday s debate. “Together with the 600,000 Armenians of France, today I want to feel like a daughter of both France and Armenia,” she declared.
The idea of criminalizing genocide denial has topped the political agenda of French-Armenian leaders over the past decade. Sarkozy signaled support for the passage of the relevant bill when he visited Yerevan in October.