French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande have reaffirmed their pledges to draft a new bill criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide if they win France’s presidential elections next month.
The two men, who advanced to a run-off ballot after the first round of voting on Sunday, joined thousands of French people of Armenian descent in marking the genocide anniversary in a downtown Paris square on Tuesday evening. Making separate appearances, they addressed the crowd in front of a statue of Komitas, a prominent Armenian composer and survivor of the 1915 massacres in Ottoman Turkey.
Both Hollande and Sarkozy urged Turkey to recognize the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. They also said that a new bill making it a crime to deny that the massacres constituted genocide would be brought before the French parliament already in June.
In a move that infuriated Turkey, the two houses of the parliament already passed such legislation in December and January. France’s Constitutional Council struck it down as unconstitutional in February, however.
Hollande, who narrowly defeated Sarkozy in the first round, said he would make sure that the new law is drafted with “utmost legal security” in order to ensure its approval by the country’s highest court. “We can no longer commit an imprecision that would again leave us with the impossibility of having the text validated,” he said.
Sarkozy, who was instrumental in the last’s bill passage, made an emphatic case for criminalizing any public denial of crimes against humanity. “There are statements that are not opinions,” he said. “Democracy is not about authorizing anyone to say anything without respecting the victim. This is not what democracy is all about.”
“Disputing a truth like genocide is unacceptable in the territory of the French Republic,” he said in a speech videotaped and posted by his press office on website of the presidential Elysee Palace.
Sarkozy also renewed his calls for Turkey to “revisit its past” and stop denying what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. “The entire world has recognized that it was a genocide,” he said.
Significantly, the French leader spoke out against the idea of Turkish and Armenian historians jointly studying the events of 1915 and determining whether they indeed amounted to genocide. “Would anyone have an idea to tell our Jewish compatriots that there needs to be a commission of historians to clarify whether the infamous act of the Holocaust existed in Europe?” he argued. “That would be offensive, unacceptable and intolerable.”
The creation of such a body is envisaged by one of the two Turkish-Armenian normalization protocols signed in 2009 and effectively frozen afterwards. President Serzh Sarkisian has been strongly criticized at home and in the worldwide Armenian Diaspora for agreeing to that provision.
Analysts believe that Sarkozy engineered the genocide bill’s passage and is now promising a fresh effort to criminalize genocide denial in the hope of winning the French-Armenian vote.
The incumbent president insisted, however, that he was simply “stunned” by what he saw at the Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan during a state visit to Armenia last October. “I want to tell all those who haven’t made such a trip, who haven’t seen what I saw, and who haven’t heard what I heard that they cannot understand the memory of this unspeakable pain of all Armenians,” he said.
“Visiting Yerevan, I understood what millions of Armenians feel when thinking about that genocide because I could imagine each of them putting themselves in the place of their grandparents and ancestors and wondered how I myself would have reacted,” added Sarkozy.