Prague, 14 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The comments by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier came after talks in Brussels with his counterparts from the 24 other European Union countries.
Barnier told reporters that France wants Ankara to reconsider its position on the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians at the start of the last century before it joins the EU.
"Regarding Armenia, I mentioned the request that France will make during the negotiations [with Turkey] for a recognition of the tragedy that took place at the beginning of the [last] century and that concerned hundreds of thousands of Armenians," Barnier said.
It was the first time a French government official publicly established a link between the Armenian atrocities and Turkey's EU aspirations.
Barnier said France would file an official request with the Turkish government after the EU gives Ankara a date for the start of formal entry talks.
Ankara's membership bid will be reviewed at the EU's winter summit on 16 and 17 December in Brussels. The bloc has already made it clear that it will give positive answers.
"This is an issue that we will raise during the negotiation process. We will have about 10 years to do so and the Turks will have about 10 years to ponder their answer." -- French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier
According to most Western estimates, massacres and deportations between 1915 and 1923 claimed up to 1.5 million Armenian lives. Another 200,000 Armenians reportedly were killed between 1894 and 1896.
Most Western and Armenian scholars blame the nationalist Young Turk leaders that ruled over the Ottoman Empire during World War I for a deliberate policy of extermination.
Although the successive governments that came to power after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 deny any links with their Ottoman predecessors, they have always refused to recognize the killings of Armenians as genocide.
Ankara insists the 1.5-million death toll is inflated and says that, if 300,000 Armenians did die during those years, this was largely the result of civil unrest that also claimed the lives of thousands of Turks.
Citing historical evidence, Western and Armenian scholars in turn say the Young Turks sought to systematically deport and massacre the empire's Armenian population, partly in retaliation for its suspected collaboration with Russia.
Since 1923, Turkey has resisted and condemned any attempt by foreign parliaments or governments to raise the Armenian genocide issue.
In June 2001, the French parliament passed a cautiously worded bill that recognized the 1915-1923 killings of Ottoman Armenians as genocide.
Although the French government opposed the initiative, President Jacques Chirac signed the bill into law. This prompted a swift reaction from Ankara, which threatened to sever economic and cultural ties with Paris.
Turkey's anger eventually abated after a few weeks and bilateral relations went back to normal.
Up until a parliamentary debate today, Barnier was careful to not describe the 1915-1923 killings as "genocide." Still, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman immediately reacted to his initial comments, saying his country would "never recognize any so-called genocide."
Armenia, which has put recognition of the genocide worldwide on its foreign policy agenda, welcomed France's position.
Speaking to reporters in Yerevan today, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian said that Barnier's remarks in Brussels "show once again that the question of the genocide has gone beyond the Armenian framework and is now a global issue."
In an interview with Reuters last week, Oskanian said he hoped Turkey would change its stance on the genocide after it enters into talks with the EU.
Regional experts say Ankara's attitude toward the Armenian issue is deeply rooted in Turkeys' educational system, which glosses over the country's cultural diversity in a bid to promote a unifying Turkish national identity.
However, Barnier said that in France's view, Ankara cannot aspire to EU membership if it refuses to come in terms with its past.
"If, as I think, the core idea of Europe's project is that all its members should reconcile one with another -- like France and Germany, which have put reconciliation at the center of their project -- and that each member state should reconcile with its own past, then I believe that when the time comes Turkey, too, will have to come in terms with its own past and history and recognize this tragedy," Barnier said.
In comments on France 2 public television today, the foreign minister reiterated that Paris is not making this a condition for the opening of entry talks with the EU. Barnier said that would not be legally possible.
"This is an issue that we will raise during the negotiation process. We will have about 10 years to do so and the Turks will have about 10 years to ponder their answer. It is not a condition we're making for the opening of negotiations that will be discussed by EU leaders this coming Thursday and Friday," Barnier said.
Results of an opinion survey released today by the Paris-based French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) show a majority of citizens in France and Germany remain opposed to Turkey's entry into the EU.
Those who object to Ankara's accession cite its human rights record, its cultural and religious differences with European countries, and the status of women in Turkish society.
However, they make no mention of the Armenian issue.