France calls for Turkish restraint ahead of 'genocide' law vote
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. AFP PhotoFrance appealed for calm after a furious Turkey threatened "permanent" sanctions if French senators pass a bill later on Monday to outlaw denial of the Armenian claims of genocide.
The French lower house drew a first wave of Turkish ire last month, when it approved the bill which threatens with jail anyone in France who denies that the 1915 incident amounted to genocide.
Ankara froze political and military ties with France and has promised further measures if the bill is passed by the Senate or is approved by President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose right-wing UMP party put forward the bill.
"We appeal for calm," said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. "Turkey is a very important partner and ally of France," he said, with senators due to vote on the diplomatically fraught bill later Monday.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who cancelled talks with European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Iran's nuclear drive to deal with the crisis, said that Ankara had already prepared its response.
"We have previously determined the steps to be taken if the bill is finally adopted. No one should doubt it," state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Davutoglu as saying.
Davutoğlu said on Saturday that the law would result in "permanent sanctions" arguining that it goes against European values and would not help Turkish-Armenian relations.
Trade between France and Turkey was worth 12 billion euros (15.5 billion dollars) in 2010, with several hundred French businesses operating there.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused France of hypocrisy and Sarkozy of pandering to the vote of France's estimated 400,000 voters of Armenian origin three months ahead of a tough reelection battle.
"I hope the Senate will not make France a country contradicting its own values," Erdogan said. "This is a debate which is entirely against the freedom of thought. This is merely a step taken for the upcoming elections."
Around 15,000 Turks from France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg rallied peacefully on the streets of Paris on Saturday to protest the law.
Turks and Armenians began gathering to stage demonstrations outside the Senate ahead of the debate, set for Monday afternoon, with police keeping them some distance apart.
In a bid to defuse the crisis, Sarkozy sent a conciliatory letter to Erdoğan, released by the French embassy in Ankara on Friday.
"I hope we can make reason prevail and maintain our dialogue, as befits allied and friendly countries," Sarkozy wrote, adding that the measure "is in no way aimed at any state or people in particular."
But the bill has not won universal support in the government, where some ministers fear it will hurt diplomatic and trade ties with a NATO ally and major economic partner.
Even Sarkozy's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has admitted the bill is "untimely." A Senate Laws Commission on Wednesday rejected the bill, but their vote is not expected to prevent it from becoming law.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in 1915 and 1916 by the forces of Turkey's former Ottoman Empire.
Turkey disputes the figure, arguing that only 500,000 died, and denies this was genocide, ascribing the toll to fighting and starvation during World War I and accusing the Armenians of siding with Russian invaders.
France has already recognised the killings as a genocide, but the new bill would go further, by punishing anyone who denies this with a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($57,000).
Modern Turkey is extremely sensitive about the issue, and has accused France of attacking freedom of expression and free historical enquiry.