By Joan Trevor
On 12 October, the French National Assembly gave a first reading to a bill that would make it a criminal offence to deny the Armenian genocide of 1915-17. The punishment could be up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros. The bill passed by 106 votes to 19.
The bill had been delayed from the spring. In the interim, the Turkish government had objected to its being introduced, but to no avail. The fallout from the vote might include Turkish economic sanctions against France. The European Commission, pursuing negotiations over Turkey’s entry into the EU, said the bill would "prohibit dialogue”.
The bill was brought by the Socialist Party. Ruling UMP deputies had a free vote, although President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin did not support the bill. Chirac phoned the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan afterwards to apologise.
Chirac is not uncritical of Turkey. He, along with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – front runner in the race to be France’s next President – and the Socialist Party’s presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal, has said that to be admitted to the EU Turkey must admit the Armenian genocide.
Sarkozy, and a majority of his countrymen and women, almost certainly opposes Turkey joining the EU. He says it is because Turkey is a poor country, but he also thinks that Turkey simply isn’t “European” enough.
The bill is not likely to become law, it has to be passed by the Senate and the President and that is unlikely to happen before the presidential election in May 2007.
The low turnout for the debate is partly explained by this, and partly by the fact that many deputies stayed away. Many believed that the bill was simply a vote-catching ploy by the Socialist Party: there are estimated to be more than 400,000 people of Armenian descent in France. At the same time, it will not do the Socialist Party any harm with anti-Turkish voters, of whom there are many. These two constituencies together outnumber the estimated 300,000 Turkish people in France.
On the same day as the National Assembly vote, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is among several Turkish writers raising awkward questions in Turkey about Turkish history, including the mass deaths of Armenians at the hands of Turkish nationalist rulers between 1915 and 1917, and more recent persecution of Turkey’s Kurdish population.
Has the French bill struck a blow for a truer exploration in Turkey of the Armenian genocide? Many of the writers who most want Turkey to face up to these events describe the bill as unhelpful. It allows the Turkish government to present discussion of the genocide by its European neighbours as part of a general anti-Turkishness.
Turkey specifically faces calls for it to allow freedom of speech – and attempts to curtail freedom of speech about Turkish history look and are hypocritical. It is a gift to those who would put the likes of Pamuk in jail for “insulting Turkishness” in their writings. And yet… Turkish people do have to face their history.
The Turkish government has accepted that many Armenians died at the hands of the Turkish authorities in the period of the genocide, but portrays this as part of a civil war and downplays the numbers. It denies an attempted genocide. The Prime Minister has called for Armenia and Turkey together to open the archives and explore the history.
Genocide claims are strongest among the Armenian diaspora. Around three million Armenians live in Armenia today, and around five million in the diaspora. The claimed number of deaths in the genocide is as many as 1.5 million people.
Tuesday 17 October marked the 45th anniversary of a shameful episode in France’s own history. On that day in 1961, around 200 Algerian men were murdered by the French police in a Paris suburb during a peaceful protest against a curfew. This massacre took place against the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence from France, in which at least 200,000, probably many more, Algerians died.
The order to attack was made by the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Paopn, who was later convicted for crimes against humanity he committed during the Vichy regime.
In 1998 the French state owned up to the massacre, putting the number of dead at 40. In 2001, a plaque commemorating the massacre was put on the bridge from which many of those who died were pushed into the River Seine to drown.
Turkey is not the only country that has to face up to its past.