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Armenia: French To Recognize Genocide Committed By Turks

Prague, 28 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Despite strong objections from Ankara, the French National Assembly is set tomorrow to recognize officially the Armenian genocide by Turks that Armenians say took place more than 80 years ago in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The Assembly's action on a resolution presented by the ruling leftist government will make France the first major European Union country to acknowledge the controversial massacre. Among EU countries, only Greece, Turkey's long-time adversary, and the Belgian Senate, have done so in the past. The Russian Duma recognized the event as a genocide in 1995.

The Assembly's affirmative vote was virtually assured earlier this week (Tuesday, May 26) when its Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the resolution. Committee chairman Jack Lang is a former minister and close associate of the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, who himself personally but publicly recognized the Armenian genocide while in office. Lang drafted the Assembly's resolution and has been its strongest supporter and guiding spirit. This morning he told Radio France Internationale that its passage "would rectify an historic injustice (and) honor France as well as the Armenian victims."

According to Armenians, several contemporary independent observers of the killings and many later historians, Turks systematically murdered more than a million ethnic Armenians living in Anatolia between 1915 and 1917, while Europe was preoccupied with World War One. Turkish officials have long denied that any deliberate attempt was made to exterminate the Armenian minority during those years, saying that only 300,000 were killed. A few historians support the Turkish thesis.

During his interview with French radio today, Lang acknowledged that the Assembly's recognition of the genocide would, at least temporarily, upset French-Turkish relations. Last December, the 15-nation EU decided not to grant Turkey the status of a candidate for membership and Ankara immediately cut off all political dialogue with Brussels. Throughout the six months since, France --which, unlike Germany and other EU members, has no large resident Turkish community-- has sought to play the role of mediator. Paris has urged the Union to find a way to assuage Ankara's anger at being made what it calls "a pariah nation" by the EU.

In the past few days, however, the Turkish Government's anger has been directed less at Brussels than at Paris. Earlier this week, President Suleyman Demirel said that passage of the resolution would seriously damage relations between the two countries. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said tomorrow's vote would "encourage violence."

Cem did not explicitly say the violence would take place in France, which is now threatened with Islamic terrorist action during the month-long World Cup soccer tournament that begins in two weeks. But he made his remarks at a ceremony in Ankara honoring victims of a 1970s and '80s campaign by a terrorist organization calling itself the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia.

In preparing for tomorrow's vote Lang, who has an experienced hand for public relations, has worked closely with France's influential ethnic Armenian community, which numbers several hundred thousand and is often represented by the world-famous singer Charles Aznavour. With the help of conservative local politician Jean Sirapian, vice-president in France of the Armenian Liberal Democratic Party, Lang has arranged for thousands of ethnic Armenians to rally in front of the Assembly building during tomorrow's debate and vote.

The demonstrators will include members of the Armenian diaspora in Belgium, Germany, Italy and other countries, who are being bussed into Paris for the occasion. Leaders of France's 700,000-strong Jewish community have also expressed their support for the resolution.

None of this has gone down very well at the Quai d'Orsay, the home of France's Foreign Ministry. Officials (who requested anonymity) there told RFE/RL today in telephone chats that Lang persuaded Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, another former close Mitterrand associate, to accept the resolution even though it will effectively end France's EU-Turkey mediation for the immediate future. The officials said that is resented by many French career diplomats.

The flamboyant Lang, whose popularity remains high among French voters, was a senior minister for both education and culture in the last Mitterrand government (1993-95). But he was denied a ministry and shunted off to head the heretofore rubber-stamp foreign-relations committee by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who took office a year ago. Jospin has since sought to end what younger Socialists call "Mitterrandisme."

Now, say officials at the Quai, Lang has "taken his revenge" by pushing through the committee a resolution difficult for any French politician to oppose publicly. Many diplomats are hoping that Lang can be persuaded to become a candidate to lead the Paris-based UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), whose director-general is due to step down next year. Even then, admits one Quai official, "we're not sure we can get him entirely out of our hair."