France's Constitutional Council has ruled that a law concerning the mass killings of Armenians a century ago violates the country's constitution.
The law, passed in December, made it a crime to deny that the killings of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 constituted genocide. Punishment under the legislation was set at up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.
But the French high court ruled that the law amounts to an "unconstitutional infringement of the exercise of freedom of expression and communication."
The court said: "It is legitimate for the Parliament to institute indictments on abuse of the exercise of freedom of expression and communication that violate public order and the rights of others. However, the infringement of the exercise of this freedom -- which is a prerequisite for democracy and a guarantee of respect for other rights and freedoms -- must be necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued."
Turkey promptly welcomed the ruling. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the French court's decision "does not indulge political concerns" and that it "averted a potentially serious crisis" in Turkish-French ties.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the French court's ruling would prevent future attempts by French lawmakers to pass such laws, adding he hopes the French government will "respect the decision."
Turkey froze its ties with France after passage of the law by both chambers of the French parliament at the end of last year.
That move included the cancellation of permission for French warships to dock and French military planes to land in Turkey. Turkey also now requires every French military plane to request permission for flights that use Turkish airspace.
Davutoglu also said the government in Ankara would meet to consider whether to restart economic, political, and military contacts with France.
"This verdict is still new. We will consider the subject of sanctions with the prime minister, president, and cabinet," Davutoglu said. "But at this point, I can say that this ruling dismissed the problems that might occur between the Turkish and French people. I say people because we haven't seen any sign that French government has changed its stance. We hope that French government will also respect this ruling that has been taken by the country's prominent judges."
But shortly after Davutoglu made the remarks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy responded to the court ruling by ordering his government to draft a new law punishing those who deny that the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey was genocide.
Sarkozy's office noted the "great disappointment and profound sadness" of those who supported the law.
“As he said at the Armenian Genocide Memorial [in Yerevan in October,] the president [Sarkozy] believes that the denialism is intolerable and must be sanctioned accordingly. He will meet with representatives of the Armenian community of France soon,” read the statement by the Elysee Palace.
“He assigned the government to prepare a new text, taking into account the decision of the Constitutional Council,” it said.
France is home to an influential ethnic Armenian community numbering between 500,000 and 600,000 members. The vast majority of them are descendants of genocide survivors who took refuge in France after World War I.
French Member of Parliament Valerie Boyer told journalists in Paris that she would be "proud" to take part in parliamentary debates and support a new bill if one is introduced.
"Today, descendants of victims of the 1915 genocide can't be protected by acts of negationism," Boyer said. "Let me remind you that negationism isn't the expression of an ordinary opinion. The aim of negationism is to cast a cloud on consent and to make sure that the crime is forgiven in order to prolong the crime. So I wish that in our country, when a genocide is recognized by the law that the negationists can be punished, it is a matter of justice, of equality, of human rights."
RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported that there was no immediate reaction to the ruling from Armenia, which had saluted the bill’s passage. President Serzh Sarkisian twice thanked his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in December and January for helping to enact the “historic” law.
Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian reaffirmed Yerevan’s strong support for criminalizing Armenian genocide denial in an interview with the Austrian magazine “Der Standard” publicized earlier on February 28. He said the bill reflects “the view of all French people” and “can only be useful for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.”
With AFP, Reuters, and AP reporting