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France takes step to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide

French lawmakers approve penalties for deniers. In retaliation, Turkey reportedly recalls its ambassador and says bilateral visits will be suspended and joint military operations canceled.

December 22, 2011|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators displaying a giant Turkish flag rally outside the French National Assembly in Paris to protest against a bill being considered to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide. The bill passed the lower house.
Demonstrators displaying a giant Turkish flag rally outside the French… (Emma Foster, EPA )

Reporting from Paris —  

Despite threats by Turkey and vocal opposition at home, French lawmakers approved a bill Thursday making it illegal to publicly deny that the Armenian genocide occurred.

In retaliation, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recalled his country's ambassador and said bilateral visits would be suspended and joint military operations with France canceled, Agence France-Presse news service reported.

Earlier Thursday, thousands of people waving Turkish flags protested the impending vote outside the National Assembly in Paris. "My grandpa isn't an assassin!" and "Leave history to the historians," read some of their signs.

"This law limits the right to express oneself freely.... It is against the French Constitution," said Demir Onger, 65, a spokesman for several Franco-Turkish associations that were represented at the protest. "We think the bill is merely to gain votes ahead of the [presidential] election" next year.

The bill was approved with a show of hands in the 577-seat lower house of Parliament, with more than 50 deputies in favor and about 10 opposed. No official tally was provided after the vote. It still must be approved by the Senate.

It is estimated that more than 1 million Armenians were slain under Turkish rule during and just after World War I. The killings are widely recognized as a case of genocide, though Turkish officials have long disputed the label and the death toll.

The French bill stipulates that anyone who expresses an "apology, the negation or the gross public banalization of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes" already recognized by law can be punished with a $58,700 fine and one year in prison.

The bill, spearheaded by Deputy Valerie Boyer, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement party, was aimed at criminalizing the denial of the mass killings of Armenians. Since 2001, French law has recognized those killings as acts of genocide.

It is currently a crime in France to deny the Holocaust, leaving survivors of other crimes against humanity "unequally protected," wrote Boyer in her official introduction to the bill.

"Racism, xenophobia, the negation of genocides: These are not opinions. They are crimes, and should be reprimanded," Boyer said after the vote. "What is the point of recognizing a genocide, if one can deny it?"

"This text was a long time coming," she said, in response to accusations that the ruling party was fishing for French Armenian votes — the community is estimated to number about 500,000 — just months before France's presidential election. "And if the presidential [election] is able to make politics more human … all the better!"

Politicians on both the right and left spoke out against the bill Thursday, saying it would harm relations with Turkey, an important trade partner.

"It's not up to the law to solve problems of history," centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou said on France's Europe 1 radio. He called on leaders "not to inflame this affair" and later termed the bill "dangerous."

This week Turkish leaders said that if the bill passed, France would face "grave consequences" that were "irreparable."

Sarkozy's government has refused to show overt public support for the bill, while suggesting that the lower house is at the heart of an initiative that should not be viewed as an attack against Turkey.

But Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's membership in the European Union has fueled Franco-Turkish tension. And in October, while speaking about the harm of denying the Armenian genocide, Sarkozy said, "If Turkey doesn't take a look across at its history, there will — without a doubt — be a need to go further."

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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