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Turkey fumes as French lawmakers adopt Armenian genocide bill

This news story was published on December 22, 2011.
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By Clare Byrne and Jasper Mortimer

PARIS — The already strained relations between France and Turkey suffered a further blow Thursday after France’s National Assembly adopted a bill making it a crime to deny that Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted with predictable anger, saying he was recalling Turkey’s ambassador from Paris.

He also announced that French military planes could no longer fly over Turkey; French naval ships could no longer dock in Turkish ports; and all military, political, economic and educational exchanges, visits and commission meetings were canceled.

“We don’t have genocide in our history,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.

“France has trampled on the principles of its own revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe urged Turkey to react with restraint.

“What I wish is that our Turkish friends do not overreact to this decision by the French National Assembly,” he said,” insisting the two countries had “a lot of things to do together.”

The bill, which punishes denial of genocides by a year’s imprisonment and a fine of about $59,000, was adopted by a large majority of parliamentarians in a show of hands after a nearly four-hour debate.

France officially recognizes two genocides: the Nazi Holocaust of Jews during World War II and the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman-controlled eastern Turkey during World War I. The country already has a law punishing Holocaust denial.

Armenians say that up to 1.5 million people were either killed or died of neglect on deportation marches to the Syrian desert.

About two dozen countries have recognized the killings as genocide.

Ankara says between 300,000 and 500,000 Armenians were killed, but it argues that the deaths were mainly the result of unrest following the invasion of eastern Turkey by Russian forces and that there was no systematic policy to kill them.

That interpretation is disputed by a small but growing number of Turkish intellectuals who believe that the Armenians were killed deliberately. Two years ago, about 150 academics, columnists and writers signed a petition in which they apologized to Armenians for the 1915-18 killings.

In France, politicians from across the divide backed the bill, which was tabled by a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP. The opposition Socialists introduced the first such bill in 2006, but it was rejected in May this year in the Senate.

The greatest opposition to the bill came from within the UMP.

UMP deputy Michel Diefenbacher told the assembly that he opposed any attempt by France to impose its reading of history on another sovereign state, and he voted against the measure. The president of the assembly, Bernard Accoyer, also from the UMP, had also said he personally opposed the bill.

Outside the assembly, thousands of French people of Turkish origin waving Turkish and French flags demonstrated over what they saw as an attempt by the government to woo voters of Armenian origin ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

France is home to about half a million people of Armenian origin. Sarkozy had promised them before becoming president that he would push through genocide denial legislation.

“Fishing for votes must not be done at the expense of a country’s history,” read a placard waved by one demonstrator.

In order to become law, the bill must also be adopted by the Senate, where a vote might not take place for months.

Erdogan said he would wait to see how that vote unfolded before taking more measures against France.

The standoff is the latest to rock Franco-Turkish relations, which have soured over Sarkozy’s resolute opposition to Turkey joining the European Union.

However, recent months had seen a thaw as France and Turkey banded together in support of pro-democracy uprisings in Libya, and in Turkey’s neighbor, Syria.

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