Politicians in untenable situations

Politicians in untenable situations

The decision by France’s highest legal authority, which declared that the law aiming to penalize denial of the Armenian genocide was unconstitutional, is not a “victory for Turkey.” If anything, there are important lessons to be drawn from this decision, pertaining to how the separation of powers works in an advanced democracy. With a judiciary that looks increasingly like it is serving the political authority, this is a very timely lesson for Turkey.

The decision of the French Constitutional Council is a victory for the freedom of expression and the principles that guide Europe. To criticize Turkey over the freedom of expression while trying to violate this principle at home for the sake of political gain is an inconsistency that the highest legal authority in France did not permit. 

Of course, President Sarkozy immediately asked his government to pen a new version of the law, which will somehow circumvent the Constitutional Council’s ruling. A statement from his office, on the other hand, said “The President of the Republic considers that (genocide) denial is intolerable and must therefore be punished.” These are remarks which many former subjects of French colonization are also no doubt happy to hear. 

Meanwhile, Socialist leader François Hollande, a presidential contender in the upcoming elections, also promised to reintroduce the law if elected. Many say that he too is eyeing the Armenian-French vote, even if this is what he accuses Sarkozy of doing. 

Both men have thus landed in an untenable position, because once we machete through the verbiage a simple truth emerges. As politicians they have to find a way to violate their constitution if the new law is to have the same weight as the one annulled. At this stage, their battle is no longer with Turkey and Turks – which both clearly feel antipathy towards – but with the law of their own land. 

Meanwhile both have to go against the grain of the strong opinions declared on this score by major Western papers, thinkers, politicians and watchdog groups that are concerned with freedoms. All have said the French law punishing the denial of the Armenian genocide was a violation of the inviolable principle of freedom of expression. 

Hollande may be “playing the field” of course when he says he will reintroduce the law if elected, but it is clear Sarkozy is faced with a political fiasco such as he has not known before, and which his political opponents in France are already using against him. 

What makes it worse for him is the unexpectedly large number of French deputies of the French Parliament, including members from his own party, who took the law to the constitutional court to have it annulled. He has thus landed in the position of a president who is not aware of the limitations the Constitution of his country imposes on crass politicking. 

If he was aware of these limitations, why would he have painted himself into such a corner at such a politically sensitive time? Sarkozy is now trying to recoup his losses by using scare tactics and claiming that a door has been opened which will also undermine the law that penalizes Holocaust denial. 

But even deputies from his party say these are separate issues, since there is an international legal ruling on the Holocaust, enabling the law in France, while there is no such ruling concerning the events of 1915. 

After the statements of Sarkozy and Hollande, Ankara is not prepared to drop its guard against France just yet. But before we have a new bout of debilitating acrimony between the two countries, it looks like whoever brings this denial law to the agenda again will have to overcome obstacles at home first. Hopefully, sense will prevail in the intervening period.