BAKU -- Azerbaijani officials have expressed their disapproval of French legislation that makes it illegal to deny that the mass killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey nearly a century ago was genocide, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.
Novruz Mammadov, head of the Foreign Relations Department in Azerbaijan's presidential adminstration, said the bill -- which was passed by the lower house of parliament on December 22 -- is unfair and affects France's image as a democratic country.
Mammadov said the bill "restricts freedom of expression and opinions. This step by parliament can affect Azerbaijani-French ties. It's necessary to wait a while [after the vote] and then we'll take the necessary steps."
The bill -- which would penalize someone denying "the Armenian genocide" with one year in jail and a fine of some 45,000 euros ($58,000) will next be voted on by the French Senate.
At least 1 million Armenians were killed in World War I-era Ottoman Turkey. Ankara denies it was genocide. Instead, it maintains that most of those deaths -- the numbers of which it says were much lower -- were the result of fighting between Armenians and Turks.
Turkey reacted swiftly to the vote in the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, recalling its ambassador from Paris and suspending all political, economic, and military activities with France.
Azerbaijan is an longstanding ally of Turkey and hostile to Armenia, with whom it has a territorial conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but controlled by Armenians.
Azerbaijani NGOs such as the International Diaspora Center and the Union of Azerbaijan Patriotic War Veterans staged a protest on December 22 in front of the French Embassy in Baku.
Demonstrators shouted "French parliament, be fair!" "Shame on Sarkozy!" "French people, stop Sarkozy!" and "Stop assistance to Armenia, which has occupied Karabakh!" The protesters handed a statement to the embassy.
During French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Azerbaijan in October, President Ilham Aliyev said he hoped that trade turnover between the two countries would reach $4 billion. Aliyev said some 40 French companies are working successfully in Azerbaijan on a wide range of projects, including environmental protection.
"A French company will send our first telecommunications satellite into orbit," Aliyev said in October. "We have good opportunities to cooperate in this sphere."
French oil companies Total and Gaz de France also recently discovered a new gas field in Azerbaijan which is expected to strengthen the country's energy potential.
Newly opened gas fields hold some 350 billion cubic meters of gas, which increases Azerbaijan's gas reserves to 2.6 trillion cubic meters.
Independent legal analyst Erkin Qadirli told RFE/RL on December 22 that Azerbaijan has certain levers it can use to exert pressure on France.
"The Total company could lose its share in the gas field," he said. "France has also awarded Azerbaijani first lady [Mehriban Aliyeva] with an Order of Legion, which she could reject and give back [in order to cause negative publicity for Paris].
Azerbaijan is also a partner to the European Human Rights Convention and could use it as a tool to submit an appeal to a European Court if the [French bill on genocide denial] is enforced."
Qadirli says Azerbaijan could raise the issue of France's co-chairmanship in the OSCE Minsk Group, which is working to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, by claiming that France is showing support only to the Armenian side.
Read more in Azeri here