Sunday

26th Feb 2017

Controversial French bill on Armenian genocide fades away

A French bill criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide has failed to become law, but a prominent Turkish writer Elif Shafak - previously tried in her country for comments on the sensitive subject - tells EUobserver about the nationalist backlash the French debate sparked.

The controversial dispute centres around the claim by Armenia that Ottoman Turks in 1915 killed an estimated 1.5 million of its citizens - something Turkey has always strongly denied.

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  • "It should not be up to politicians to decide which version of history should be acknowledged by everyone," says Turkish novelist Elif Shafak (Photo: EUobserver)

France's National Assembly last October approved a socialist-drafted proposal which stated that those denying the genocide should be punished by one year in prison and pay a fine of €45,000.

In order to come into force, the bill would have had to be approved by the country's senate where the current centre-right government of Dominique de Villepin and President Jacques Chirac - both opposing the bill - holds a majority.

But French diplomats confirmed to EUobserver that as a result of a political decision, the bill has not been put on the upper house's agenda and that the parliamentary session is now almost over ahead of the electoral campaign for the presidential and legislative poll to be held in April, May and June.

Asked whether this means the controversial legislation is off the table even after the new parliament convenes, a French diplomat said the "draft bill would have to be voted again by the new National Assembly to resume the process."

Be careful about political power games

The bill's adoption in France's lower house last autumn led to strong criticism by both the European Commission and the Turkish authorities.

It came at the same time as an EU deadline for Ankara to fulfil its obligation over Cyprus or face a freeze of its membership talks and was seen in Turkey as yet another negative political message against its European aspirations.

Elif Shafak, one of the best known Turkish novelists, says that the French move sparked nationalist reactions in her country that eventually mainly harmed people like herself who are trying to push for an open debate about sensitive issues.

"I think that 1915 is such a sensitive and delicate political theme that it shouldn't be subject to political power games. It should not be up to politicians to decide which version of history should be acknowledged by everyone," she told EUobserver.

"I criticise my own government for curbing freedom of expression. But it is a universal principle. If I defend it in Turkey, I will defend it in France or everywhere with the same zeal and dedication. And the French bill was very much against this principle."

Ms Shafak was acquitted last September for charges of insulting Turkish national identity due to comments made by characters in her latest novel on the mass killings of Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

Just as her other professional counterparts - like the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk - Elif Shafak is a strong critic of Article 301 of Turkey's penal code which enables legal prosecutions undermining the freedom of expression in her country.

Spark of hope as part of negative trends

But she argues that the trials in Turkey of intellectuals and authors for their comments on this and other taboo topics is actually evidence of the ongoing transformation of Turkish society.

"Whenever there are big societal changes in a country, those people who want to keep the status quo panic and retaliate. And as Turkey moves closer to the EU, the people who fear these changes will do everything they can to stop the process."

Still, the novelist pointed out that while the backlash in the Islamic country comes from an organised minority, she has come across a much stronger negative sentiment from Turkish immigrants already living in Europe - also concerning the Armenian genocide debate.

"I sometimes receive hateful messages, hate emails from nationalist people reacting to my novels or comments but most of those come from Turks living abroad rather than those living in Turkey."

She believes the phenomenon can be explained as the "immigrants' psychology", adding "Most immigrants freeze their mindset and they become much more conservative. They embrace and defend their identity strongly because they always try to retaliate in response to a bigger majority identity.

"Turks living in Europe or in America are less open to social transformation than those living in Turkey. They are always defensive."

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