Dining in Paris in the shadow of the French Parliament
As I was sitting in a chic French restaurant with friends, they asked me about my thoughts on the latest piece of legislative attempt on “criminalizing rejection of Armenian genocide.” I wasn’t surprised by such a legislative attempt, and yet despite my age – which is 64 – and extensive travels, I was shocked that it was happening in France, considered to be cradle of individual rights and liberties, chief among them being free speech.
My French hosts explained to me that the legislative piece would incur penalties up to €45,000 and jail time of one year. They also explained that this was a move by President Nicolas Sarkozy for the upcoming elections as the polls show that he is trailing some six points behind and that he needs all the votes he can get. To me, this is just a lame excuse. (They said they would vote for Socialists!)
Of course you can blame me for thinking this way because I have Turkish heritage, but I am saying it nevertheless. Because of my job in international trade, I have been in France many times, as I have seen some things in my time.
I had the chance of living in Paris for a year at a time when some Armenians were on trial for planting a bomb outside the offices of Turkish Airlines in Orly that killed civilians, including French citizens. Turkey called this action terrorism then, it would be considered terrorism now by any shape or standard. At the time, those on trial were claiming they took an action that was politically motivated. That did not play well with the French court. I have seen that they were jailed.
I have also seen that the leading thinkers of literature and other prominent public figures giving support to those who committed the crime at Orly. Same people who traveled with Mr. Sarkozy to Armenia last month, applauding Mr Sarkozy in his promises to do all he could to push Turkey to acknowledge “the genocide.”
I have also seen that other politicians, at both local and national levels, around the world including the US, to take advantage of this unfortunate dispute in history for political gain.
Nobody stops to think what really happened during this dark page of history. Armenians say “it was genocide,” Turks say “it was massacre by both sides in a war.” Well, who am I to pass judgment, right? After all, I am Turkish by birth. I don’t blame the Armenians for thinking what they think. I don’t blame them for getting politically engaged on what they think. And, I don’t really blame much the petty politicians for them to take advantage of this history in their elective districts. But I am very well placed to blame those politicians who claim leadership of their people for taking them down a very dangerous path of criminalizing freedoms.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, when I learned of what my French hosts told me, that I was horrified by the fact that, in France, a country that is claiming to be the cradle of freedoms in the Continent and leading force of European values, I would be a criminal from now on.
Europe is going through tough times these days for obvious reasons. And, because the UK chose to opt out of the Eurozone decisions the other week, Mr. Sarkozy snubbed Mr. Cameron without shaking his hand in the hallway. If that’s what leaders do, so be it. This goes to show character, or the lack thereof, at a more personal level. But, what leaders should not do is to limit free speech and foment discord and hostility between respective peoples of countries in the process. I don’t know if Turks and Armenians will work out their differences any time soon, but I am positive that Mr. Sarkozy will lose the hearts and minds of millions in Turkey, which - I would guess - will not play out well for the interests of either France or Turkey. And this for what: a few votes?
Real leaders make history. Others try to rewrite them. The French Parliament should not go down this path on December 22. If it does, I will say to the “leader” of this nation of revolutionaries: “Shame on you, Mr Sarkozy. Shame on you for leading your people to follow this path!” Then I will start wondering if I will get prosecuted for saying that: Shame on you!
(*) Naciye Sahin-Davenport is a Turkish-American businesswoman who currently resides in Paris.