France and the Armenian Genocide Bill

Political Maneuvering

There is widespread speculation over the motivations behind France's Armenian genocide bill. Some critics call it a pre-election maneuver while others denounce it as an attempt to block Turkey from entering the EU. By Bernhard Schmid

Armenians applaud after debates on the Armenian genocide at the National Assembly in Paris (photo: AP)
French lawmakers approved a bill making it a crime to deny that mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I amounted to genocide

​​The controversial bill passed by 106 to 19, after most of the 577 deputies left the chamber of the French parliament in protest on Thursday of last week.

France's opposition Socialist party had sponsored the bill making it a crime to deny that the massacres of Armenians at the hands of the Turkish military and nationalists in 1915-1917 was genocide.

If passed into law by the senate and the French president, violators in France will face up to a year in prison and a €45,000 fine, the same sanctions imposed for denying the Nazi genocide of Jews during the Second World War.

The law of 2001

Back in January 2001, France adopted a law officially recognizing the genocide perpetrated on the Armenians during the First World War as an historic reality. The current conflict, however, has been fueled by ongoing agitation from Turkish nationalists.

Last March in Lyon there was a demonstration by 3,000 Turkish immigrants and French citizens of Turkish descent led by extreme right-wing organizations. They were protesting the inauguration of a memorial commemorating the victims of a 1915 massacre.

Afterwards, there was intense debate in France over whether it was necessary to amend the 2001 law recognizing the genocide with new legislation that would make it a crime to deny that it ever occurred.

The opposition Socialists submitted the bill last spring. But French President Jacques Chirac and his close political ally, Parliament Speaker Jean-Louis Debré, opposed it. In contrast to many other conservative politicians, Chirac supports Turkish membership in the EU and was afraid that the law would create complications.

A political controversy

But that failed to dissuade the Socialists who backed the bill. They pushed ahead and finally garnered the support of a relatively large number of conservative French politicians.

On July 24, the conservative French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – Chirac's most bitter rival – wrote a letter to the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organizations in France to voice his support for the new bill.

There are a number of reasons why conservatives decided to back the proposal. For starters, they believe that it might make it more difficult for Turkey to enter the European Union. Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly spoken out against EU membership for Turkey.

In the end, more conservative politicians voted in favor of the bill than Socialists – although the motion had been submitted by the Socialist party. There were 49 votes from members of the governing conservative UMP party and 40 from the Socialists. The other votes in favor came from the centrist UDF party and the Communist party.

Pre-election maneuver

Another reason why politicians support the bill, at least according to the daily newspaper Libération, is that the vote has turned into a pre-election maneuver to curry favor among voters. The largest group of people of Armenian descent in Western Europe lives in France, having arrived as refugees by ship in Marseille during the First World War.

Currently an estimated 400,000 Armenians live in France, primarily in the Marseille region, the Rhone Valley, and the Paris metropolitan area. By contrast, there are significantly fewer immigrants from Turkey.

Since it is primarily deputies from the Marseille region, the Rhone Valley, and the Paris metropolitan area who were particularly enthusiastic about voting for the genocide bill, some observers point to a connection between the vote and the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections this spring.

Despite protests in Turkey, the government in Ankara is trying to defuse the situation. It has announced that there will be no official economic sanctions against France. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry said that French firms could be excluded from large contracts, such as the construction of nuclear power plants.

Many French companies, including Renault, Peugeot, Thomson and Alcatel, held crisis meetings the day after the parliamentary vote. But the emotional reaction seems to be far less than it was after the vote in 2001.

All these political maneuverings and intrigues have apparently done little to favor critical debate and the search for historic truth. The leftist leaning French newspapers Libération and Le Monde quoted a number of Turkish intellectuals and historians who are campaigning for the Armenian genocide to be recognized in their own country, yet vehemently oppose the French law.

Bernhard Schmid

© 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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