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14th Aug 2022

Franco-Turkish relations hit new low on genocide bill

  • Contemporary map showing Armenian-populated parts of Turkey in blue (Photo: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen)

Turkey has imposed sanctions against France in reaction to a draft law on the Armenian genocide which could see the Turkish Prime Minister put in prison unless he claimed diplomatic immunity.

The measures comprise a freeze on bilateral meetings on foreign and defence policy; cancelling a ministerial-level meeting on the economy in January 2012; forcing French military jets to seek permission each time they enter Turkish airspace; and a ban on French naval vessels in Turkish ports. Ankara also recalled its ambassador to Paris.

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference on Thursday (22 December) said the measures are just the "first phase" of his response.

He called the bill "an irreparable wound" to bilateral relations and accused French leader Nicolas Sarkozy of "racism, discrimination, xenophobia." He added: "There is no such genocide in history. We are proud of our history."

French MPs earlier the same day by a show of hands voted through a bill put forward by Valerie Boyer from Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party.

The draft law - which must be approved by the Senate and signed by Sarkozy before it enters into force - says anybody guilty of making public statements which amount to a "denial or gross trivialisation" of the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust can be put in prison for one year or fined €45,000.

A spokesman for the French parliament told EUobserver that Erdogan's remarks would make him liable for the penalty if he entered France without claiming diplomatic immunity.

He added that if a historian published evidence which cast doubt on the Armenian genocide or if a public figure said they had no firm position on the subject either way, they would also be liable.

For his part, French foreign minister Alain Juppe in a written statement said he "regrets" Erdogan's decision but described Turkey as "an ally and a strategic partner", amid sympathy in the Quai d'Orsay toward Turkey's anger.

France was already unpopular in Turkey due to its public opposition to it ever joining the EU.

Meanwhile, the EU institutions in Brussels are keen to stay out of the affair.

A spokesman for enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said it is a "bilateral matter." A spokesman for justice commissioner Vivianne Reding noted that while Article 83 of the EU Treaty says member states should harmonise their laws on genocide-denial, an internal legal study found that "at this stage the conditions to use this possibility have not been met."

With EU countries having never agreed a common line on Armenia, the European External Action Service is also gagged from speaking out - posing the question whether its agnosticism would fall foul of the French bill.

'Let's face it ...'

Jewish human rights campaigner Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1944 with specific reference to the Armenian event in 1915.

The UN General Assembly in a resolution in 1948 defined it as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

There is abundant evidence that Turkey's extermination of 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children during World War I meets the criteria. Mass graves, early photos and statements by contemporary soldiers and statesmen, including by Turkish politicians, testify to a planned campaign.

On 19 October 1918 the President of the Turkish senate, Ahmed Riza told the assembly in his inaugural speech: "Let's face it, we Turks savagely killed off the Armenians."

Speaking in an interview with this website prior to the French vote, Turkey's former ambassador to the EU, Selim Kuneralp said he is against the French law because he believes in free speech, whether in the EU or in Turkey.

"History should be left to the historians ... I do not believe what happened can be described as genocide but I believe that if people feel that way they should be able to say it."

Commenting on the French vote, a leading Jewish thinker, Rabbi David Rosen said he believes the Armenian killings are genocide, but added that it "is a matter of legitimate dispute", unlike the Holocaust, with which "no respectable person disagrees."

He added: "I am against laws to condemn people for lying about history ... [But] it seems there should be laws to allow people who are offended by the way others relate to historic events that impinge on their identity and history to pursue legal action, in the same way as in situations of possible defamation."

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