In a ruling welcomed by Turkey, France’s highest court on Tuesday rejected as unconstitutional a French bill that would make it a crime to deny that the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of “immense disappointment” with the decision and instructed his government to draft a new bill criminalizing genocide denial.
The Constitutional Council ruled that the bill passed by both houses of the French parliament amounts to an “unconstitutional infringement of the exercise of freedom of expression and communication.”
“It is legitimate for the Parliament to institute indictments on abuse of the exercise of freedom of expression and communication that violate public order and the rights of others. However, the infringement of the exercise of this freedom -- which is a prerequisite for democracy and a guarantee of respect for other rights and freedoms -- must be necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued,” the council said in a statement posted on its website.
Sarkozy reacted to the ruling with a statement issued by his office. It said the French president understands “the immense disappointment and profound sadness of all those who welcomed with gratitude and hope the passage of this legislation designed to guard against genocide denialism.”
“As he said at the Armenian Genocide Memorial [in Yerevan last October,] the president believes that the denialism is intolerable and must be sanctioned accordingly. He will meet with representatives of the Armenian community of France soon,” read the statement the by the Elysee Palace.
“He assigned the government to prepare a new text, taking into account the decision of the Constitutional Council,” it said.
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.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government, which has strongly condemned the bill and imposed sanctions on Paris as a result, was quick to hail the development. In a statement cited by Turkish media, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the decision set an important precedent. “This is a very positive decision. I thank the members of the council for the respectful decision,” he said.
According to “Hurriyet Daily News,” Davutoglu also thanked the more than 140 French lawmakers who challenged the bill’s legality at the Constitutional Council late last month.
The AFP news agency quoted another Turkish leader, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, as saying that by declaring the genocide bill unconstitutional the French tribunal averted a “grave crisis” in French-Turkish relations.
There was no immediate reaction to the ruling from Armenia, which had saluted the bill’s passage. President Serzh Sarkisian twice thanked his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in December and January for helping to enact the “historic” law.
Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian reaffirmed Yerevan’s strong support for criminalizing Armenian genocide denial in an interview with the Austrian magazine “Der Standard” publicized earlier on Tuesday. He said the bill reflects “the view of all French people” and “can only be useful for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.”
Under the bill invalidated by the Constitutional Council, anyone in France publicly denying the Armenian and other genocides officially recognized by Paris would face a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000). Sarkozy voiced support for its passage when he visited Armenia in October.