YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Turkey to recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as a genocide in remarks Friday that drew sharp criticism from Ankara.
"Turkey, which is a great country, would honor itself by revisiting its history like other countries in the world have done," Sarkozy said during his visit to the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
The killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire has been the main barrier to the ex-Soviet republic's reconciliation with Turkey. Armenians have long fought to persuade other governments to call the killings a genocide.
Turkish leaders have rejected the term, contending the figures are inflated and saying there were many deaths on both sides as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I.
Sarkozy also hinted that Turkey's refusal to recognize the genocide would force France to change its law and make such denials a criminal offense.
"If Turkey does not do this, then doubtless we will have to go further," he said without elaborating.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described Sarkozy's comments as "political opportunism" aimed at gaining votes from French-Armenians at elections.
"Unfortunately whenever there are elections in Europe, this type of opportunism arises," Davutoglu said.
He also said France had no right to criticize Turkey because of the country's colonial past.
The French parliament officially recognized the killings as a genocide in 2001, one of several moves that strained ties between Paris and Ankara. Turkey, however, remains one of France's major trading partners outside the European Union.
In 2004, then-President Jacques Chirac told Turkey it would have to recognize the mass killings as genocide if it wanted to become a member of the EU, insisting the French would otherwise vote Turkey out in a referendum.
Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations.
In addition to tensions over the mass killings, efforts to normalize ties also have been thrown back by the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Since then, talks to resolve one of the most worrisome "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union have dragged on with the enclave controlled by Armenian and separatist forces.
Impoverished, landlocked and mostly Christian Armenia has been hurt economically by Turkey's closing of the border in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan.
Sarkozy called on his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian to seek a peaceful way of ending the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and said Paris will continue to lend political support to Armenia.
"Peace in the region is extremely important for both sides," he said.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.