France passes 'genocide' bill
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
General view of the French parliament. AP PhotoFrance put at risk its ties with Turkey, a key NATO ally and one of Europe's fastest growing economies, on Thursday, when lawmakers debated a bill to ban the denial of the Armenian claims regarding the events of 1915.
Turkey has threatened diplomatic and trade sanctions if the bill is passed, accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party of pandering to France's large Armenian community ahead of elections next year.
France wants to work closely with Turkey on dealing with the Iranian nuclear stand-off and the crisis in Syria, as well as tap into its large market, and the effects of a breakdown in relations could be major.
But ruling party lawmakers are determined to pass a bill that would make it a crime to deny the killings of 1915 amounted to a genocide.
"We're not trying to write history but to make an indispensable political act," Patrick Devedjian, a lawmaker of Armenian descent, told parliament.
"Now, Turkey is falling into revisionism and denies its own history," he claimed, to general support from his colleagues.
The law penalises the denial of any massacre recognised as a genocide by the state, but so far this list only includes the Holocaust and the Armenian claims -- and Holocaust denial is penalised under French law.
The debate began Thursday under tight security, after around 4,000 Turkish expatriates living in France gathered outside parliament to protest the vote and to denounce the dark periods in France's own history.
The official line from Sarkozy's government is that the genocide law is an idea of parliament. On Thursday it defended the right of lawmakers to vote on the issue, without specifically endorsing it.
But the government made sure there was time on the parliamentary calendar to vote on the issue, and it is largely supported by members of Sarkozy's UMP. Turkey has said it blames the French "executive".
According to the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is furious about the "stupid" bill, arguing that it will provoke a damaging rift with Ankara for purely political ends.
Juppe's office refused to confirm or deny the report.
More than one member of the UMP spoke against the law, which also has the support of opposition Socialists.
"It's in no-one's interests to pour oil on the fire in this fragile, sensitive and strategic region," said Michel Diefenbacher, head of parliament's Franco-Turkish friendship committee.
"What would we say, we French, if some other country came and told us what it thinks about the Vendee massacre?" he demanded, referring to mass killings in the 1790s in western France in the wake of the French Revolution.
France is home to around 500,000 citizens of Armenian descent and they are seen as a key source of support for Sarkozy and the UMP ahead of presidential and legislative elections in April and June nest year.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed during World War I by the forces of Turkey's former Ottoman Empire. Turkey disputes the figure, arguing that only 500,000 died, and denies that it was a genocide, ascribing the toll to the fighting and accusing the Armenians of siding with Russian invaders.
Turkey has branded the French law an attack on freedom of expression and historical inquiry, and its ruling and opposition parties jointly denounced it as a "grave, unacceptable and historic mistake."
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "Tomorrow probably I will announce what we will do at the first stage and we will announce what kind of sanctions we will have at the second and third stages." The extent of the threatened sanctions is not yet clear, but Ankara has said they would begin with the recall of its ambassador to Paris and could see French firms excluded from bidding on Turkish public works contracts.
Franco-Turkish relations are often tense -- Sarkozy is a strong opponent of allowing Turkey to join the European Union -- but 1,000 French firms work there and trade between the two is worth 12 billion euros per year.
Much of Europe, including France, is facing recession amid a sovereign debt crisis, but Turkey enjoys growth rates in excess of eight percent and, with 78 million people, it is a huge potential market.
The French law would impose a 45,000 euro fine and a year in prison for anyone in France who denies publicly the Armenian claims of genocide. The first vote was expected later Thursday, but it will not be definitively adopted until next year.