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Armenia: French Parliament's Recognition Of 1915 Genocide Angers Turkey

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

France's parliament yesterday passed a bill recognizing the massacres of Armenians living under Ottoman rule during World War One as genocide. The move, with very few equivalents elsewhere in the world, prompted a swift reaction from Ankara, which still denies the genocide claims put forward by survivors of the killings and their descendants. RFE/RL's correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- French parliamentarians yesterday unanimously approved a controversial bill that Turkey says will seriously affect relations between Paris and Ankara. Members of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament, agreed on the single-sentence bill, which says: "France publicly recognizes the Armenian genocide of 1915."

Within hours, Turkey's Foreign Ministry issued a statement warning that the law "will cause serious and lasting harm to Turkish-French relations." Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told reporters that Ankara has recalled its ambassador to Paris "for consultations," but had not yet decided how it will respond. Ecevit said:

"We have deep political and economic relations with France. These relations will certainly be affected."

In Yerevan, an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed the French parliament's action. The spokesman (unnamed) told RFE/RL that the new law, in his words, "upholds historic truth" and could enable Armenians and Turks to "overcome the heavy legacy of the past."

The French bill refers to the massive killings of Armenians living under Ottoman rule during World War One. It is identical to an earlier text adopted by the National Assembly in May 1998.

But the draft was put on hold for 30 months until the parliament's upper chamber, the Senate, approved it in a first reading two months ago.

Before yesterday's vote, the French government had disavowed any responsibility for the bill. The government feared it would spoil relations with Turkey, a NATO member, a candidate for membership in the European Union, and one of France's leading economic partners.

French parliamentarians and law experts have called the law "symbolic." They point out that it can not lead to the prosecution of people who deny the genocide, or allow victims of the 1915 persecutions, or their descendants, to seek compensation from Turkey.

A deputy of the center-right RPR (Rally for the Republic) party, Patrick Devedjian -- whose father survived the 1915 killings -- told the National Assembly before the vote that representatives of the Armenian diaspora were not looking for revenge.

"The descendants of the victims are not seeking revenge. They just want to bury their dead in a shroud that should be the truth and only the truth."

There are about 350,000 people of Armenian origin in France, most of whom are descendants of survivors of the killings that began in 1915 and ended in 1917. Armenians say 1.5 million of their compatriots were massacred by the so-called "Young Turks" government during the two-year period.

Turkish officials have always denied the accusations of genocide. They say that some 300,000 Armenians and thousands of Turks were killed in what they describe as domestic unrest during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

Although the bill voted yesterday does not explicitly blame the Ottomans for the massacres, it is likely to infuriate officials in Ankara and many ordinary Turks.

Some Turkish media -- including the NTV private television channel and the daily "Cumhuriyet" -- have cited unidentified high-ranking military sources as saying Ankara could suspend France's participation in a $7 billion tender to equip Turkish armed forces with new tanks. Ukraine and the United States are also competing to win the tender.

Ankara sent similar warnings to France 32 months ago, when the bill was first adopted by the National Assembly. But in the end the warnings did not affect yesterday's vote.

Security around the French Embassy in Ankara has been reportedly boosted for fear of violent street demonstrations.

With very few exceptions, Turkish media have been highly critical of France during the past several days.

One of the country's leading newspapers, the "Milliyet" daily, last week launched a campaign calling on readers to "bombard" French parliamentarians with messages warning them not to vote for the bill. A week ago, "Hurriyet" columnist Mumtaz Soysal accused French deputies of supporting the bill out of short-term political considerations.

Some parliamentarians are facing re-election in March in nationwide municipal elections. Under current law, French lawmakers are permitted to hold more than one elected position.

Other newspaper commentators, such as Gunduz Aktan in the English-language "Turkish Daily News," have suggested that France is trying -- through the Armenian genocide issue -- to dissuade Ankara from joining the EU.

Parliamentarians who spoke before the National Assembly yesterday insisted the bill was not aimed against Turkey.

Center-right deputy Devedjian said this vote was aimed at repairing what he termed a "historical injustice." He recalled that in 1915, France, Britain and Russia had condemned the killings of Armenians as "crimes against humanity and civilization."

"Don't allow the truth to be the last victim of the genocide. Let's not give way to lies, hypocrisy and cowardliness. Let's have the courage to print this truth, which many other nations have recognized before us, in the official record (in French: "Journal Officiel") of the Republic."

Socialist deputy Jean-Francois Blazy told the assembly that Ankara should come to terms with its own past before joining the EU.

"Every nation, every people, that adheres to democratic values -- or pretends to do so -- should be able to face the dark hours of its recent past and in this regard the 20th century provides many examples."

This new bill can only be prevented from coming into force by a decision of the Constitutional Court, France's highest judical body. But it is unlikely any political leader would seek to have the law overturned while the country is preparing for legislative and presidential elections next year.

Prior to the French parliament's vote, there have been few similar actions elsewhere in the world. In May 2000, the Lebanese legislature recognized the 1915 to 1917 Ottoman massacres as genocide, specifying that 1.5 million Armenians had been killed. Two years earlier, Belgium's Senate -- but not its entire parliament -- called on the present Turkish government to "recognize the historic reality of the genocide committed [by the Ottoman government]."

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives dropped a genocide motion after President Bill Clinton said it would spoil Washington's relations with Ankara and hurt U.S. interests in the Middle East.

(Abbas Djavadi of the Tajik Service and Emil Danielyan of the Armenian Service contributed to this report.)