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20th Apr 2019

Brussels and Ankara condemn French law on Armenia genocide

The European Commission has condemned a French parliament vote in support of a law criminalising denial that Armenians suffered genocide by the Ottoman Turks, saying the move is likely to hinder open dialogue on Armenia in would-be EU member state Turkey.

"Should this law indeed enter into force, it would prohibit the debate and the dialogue which is necessary for reconciliation," said a commission spokeswoman after Paris' National Assembly vote on Thursday (12 October) afternoon.

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"It is not up to the law to write history, but in order to write history, historians need to be able to conduct an open debate," she added.

Armenia says Ottoman Turks in 1915 killed around 1.5 million of its citizens, something Turkey has always strongly denied.

Discussion of the issue in Turkey has been all but non-existent, with people pursuing the topic falling foul of article 301 of the country's penal code which punishes "insulting Turkishness."

Recognising the killings as genocide is not a criterion Turkey has to fulfil in order to become a member of the EU, but Brussels has been strongly pushing Ankara to consider the issue in an open manner on freedom of speech grounds – a strong principle of the EU.

Speaking ahead of today's vote in France, enlargement commissioner Ollie Rehn had said "This [law] would put in danger the efforts of all those in Turkey – intellectuals, historians, academics, authors – who truly want to develop an open and serious debate without taboos and for the sake of freedom of expression."

The socialist-drafted law was passed by 106 votes to 19 in the lower house and found favour on both sides of the poltical divide with 49 centre-right MPs backing the bill although President Chirac's conservative government is against it.

The legislation - which must still go through France's upper house before it comes into force - follows on the heels of a 2001 National Assembly resolution which recognised the massacre of Armenians as genocide, but the new bill proposes making Armenia genocide denial punishable by one year in prison and a fine of €45,000.

Centuries of goodwill damaged

Turkey has attacked the move, with a foreign ministry statement fired off after the vote saying "Turkish-French relations, which have been meticulously developed over the centuries, took a severe blow today through the irresponsible initiatives of some short-sighted French politicians, based on unfounded allegations."

In the run up to the vote, Ankara had also fuelled speculation it may react with trade moves such as cancelling French contracts, with French firms exporting €5 billion a year of goods to the country.

Some MEPs also hit out at the French decision, with UK liberal Andrew Duff saying "how can the EU expect Turkey to develop its laws and practice on freedom of speech when France, one of [the EU] founding members, is going in the opposite direction?"

A statement by the greens in the European Parliament said "The bill [will] further strengthen the hand of those working to undermine the reform process in Turkey and be a major setback to efforts in Turkey and the EU to promote democratisation."

Turkey 'should not lecture on free speech'

For their part, the French deputies who pushed the bill through have been equally vigorous in its defence.

"This legal proposal is immense progress for the Armenia cause and more generally for the cause of humanity," said communist member of parliament Frederic Dutoit, according to Le Monde.

"Turkey is not in a position to give us a lesson on the repression of public opinion because it is [prime minister] Erdogan's government itself which adopted the 301 law which punishes affirmation of genocide by prison," French deputy Patrick Devedjian stated.

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