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French bid to outlaw genocide denial outrages Turkey

French lawmakers easily passed a measure Thursday to make it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks amounted to genocide.
Image: Turkish demonstration in Paris.
Turks demonstrate in front of the French National Assembly in Paris on Thursday. Emma Foster / EPA
/ Source: news services

French lawmakers easily passed a measure Thursday to make it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks amounted to genocide. Turkey swiftly retaliated, ordering its ambassador home and halting official contacts, including some military cooperation.

Within hours of the lower house vote on the bill, which would penalize those who deny the Armenian genocide, Turkey meted out a severe punishment of its own.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a series of retaliatory measures, recalling the country's ambassador to France and suspending joint military maneuvers and restricting French military flights.

Turkey, a NATO member, is a strategic ally of France and valued trading partner, and the moves diminish ties at a particularly crucial time. Paris and Ankara are both deeply involved in international issues from the uprising in Syria to Afghanistan.

"We are recalling our ambassador in Paris to Ankara for consultations," Erdogan said.

"As of now, we are canceling bilateral level political, economic and military activities," he said. "We are suspending all kinds of political consultations with France" and "bilateral military cooperation, joint maneuvers are canceled as of now."

'Grave consequences'
It was clear long before the vote — easily passed with a show of hands — that France was on a collision course with Turkey. Ankara had threatened to remove Ambassador Tahsin Burcuoglu if French lawmakers did not desist and warned of "grave consequences" to political and economic ties.

Turkey vehemently rejects the term "genocide" for the World War I era-mass killings of Armenians, saying the issue should be left to historians. It contends that France is trampling freedom of expression and that President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a vote-getting mission before April presidential elections.

Successive Turkish governments and the vast majority of Turks feel the charge of genocide is an insult to their nation. Ankara argues that there was heavy loss of life on both sides.

The French government has stressed that it did not initiate the bill.

An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France and many have pressed to raise the legal statute regarding the massacres to the same level as the Holocaust by punishing denial of genocide.

"We must not mix freedom of opinion with propaganda," conservative lawmaker Patrick Devedjian, who is of Armenian origin, said before lawmakers in arguing for the measure.

"Would you accept today that Germany denies the Holocaust and that it spreads abroad, to France, a negationist propaganda? No," he said later before journalists. "So why should we accept that from Turkey."

France formally recognized the killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone denying that. The bill sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of €45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings by Ottoman Turks, putting such action on a par with denial of the Holocaust. The measure will now be debated next year in the Senate.

In Washington, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling the killings genocide.

The authorities in Yerevan welcomed the vote, Armenia's Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian saying in a statement: "By adopting this bill (France) reconfirmed that crimes against humanity do not have a period of prescription and their denial must be absolutely condemned."

Assassination anniversary
Earlier, about 3,000 French nationals of Turkish origin demonstrated peacefully outside the parliament ahead of the vote, which came 32 years to the day since a Turkish diplomat was assassinated by Armenian militants in central Paris.

"Our ancestors can finally rest in peace," said 75-year-old Maurice Delighazarian, standing outside France's National Assembly. He said his grandparents on both sides were among the victims of the 1915 massacre.

Lawmakers denounced what they called Turkey's propaganda effort in a bid to sway them.

"Laws voted in this chamber cannot be dictated by Ankara," said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a deputy from the New Center party.

The bill's author said she was "shocked" at the attempt to interfere with the parliament's work.

"My bill doesn't aim at any particular country," Valerie Boyer, a deputy for Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, told lawmakers.

An initial bid to punish denial of the Armenian genocide failed earlier this year, killed by the Senate five years after it was passed by the lower house.

French authorities have stressed the importance of bilateral ties with Turkey and the key role it plays in sensitive strategic issues as a member of NATO, in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

However, Sarkozy has long opposed the entry into the European Union of mostly Muslim Turkey, putting a constant strain on the two nations' ties.

'Dirty and bloody history'
Turkish authorities have weighed in with caustic remarks about France's past. Erdogan has recalled France's colonial history in Algeria and a 1945 massacre there, as well as its role in Rwanda, where some have claimed a French role in the 1994 genocide.

"Those who do want to see genocide should turn around and look at their own dirty and bloody history," Erdogan said last weekend. "Turkey will stand against this intentional, malicious, unjust and illegal attempt through all kinds of diplomatic means."

Turkey insists the mass killings of Christian Armenians — up to 1.5 million, historians estimate — occurred during civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, with losses on both sides. Historians contend the Armenians were massacred in the first genocide of the 20th century.

France is pressing Turkey to own up to its history for the sake of "memory" just as the French have officially recognized the role of their state — the collaborationist Vichy government — in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.

In October, Sarkozy visited Armenia and its capital of Yerevan, urging Turkey to recognize the 1915 killings as genocide.

"Turkey, which is a great country, would honor itself by revisiting its history like other countries in the world have done," Sarkozy said.

France, however, took its own time recognizing the state's role in the Holocaust. It was not until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac proclaimed France's active role in sending its citizens to death camps. And it was only in 2009 that his historic declaration was formally recognized in a ruling by France's top body, the Council of State.