Turkey slams France over Armenian 'genocide' bill

January 24, 2012 - 3:25 PM
France Turkey Genocide

Armenians citizens from France gather in front of the Senate in Paris, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, as a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was a genocide is scheduled to begin debating in the mid-afternoon. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey warned the French president on Tuesday against signing a law that would make it a crime to deny that the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago constituted genocide, saying such a move would deal a heavy blow to the relations between the two countries.

France's parliament approved the bill late Monday, risking more sanctions from Turkey and complicating an already delicate relationship with the rising power. Officials in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government insisted the vote didn't directly target the country.

Sarkozy — who personally supported the bill — plans to sign the measure into law within the required 15-day period after the bill's passage on Monday, an official in the presidential Elysee Palace said.

"We are available for dialogue," an official in the president's office said. He was not authorized to speak publicly.

He pointed to a Jan. 18 letter sent by Sarkozy to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for "reason and maintaining our dialogue" — after refusing two phone calls from Ankara.

Saber-rattling on Tuesday by Turkey, which has not announced any sanctions against France, is interpreted in Paris as a wish by Turkish leaders to buy time.

Turkey, which sees the allegations of genocide as a threat to its national honor, has already suspended military, economic and political ties with Paris, and briefly recalled its ambassador last month when the lower house of French parliament approved the same bill.

For some in France, the bill is part of a tradition of legislation in some European countries, born of the agonies of the Holocaust, that criminalizes the denial of genocide. Denying the Holocaust is already a punishable crime in France.

Most historians contend that the 1915 killings of 1.5 million Armenians as the Ottoman Empire broke up was the 20th century's first genocide, and several European countries recognize the massacres as such. Switzerland has convicted people of racism for denying the genocide.

But Turkey says that there was no systematic campaign to kill Armenians and that many Turks also died during the chaotic disintegration of the empire. It also says that death toll is inflated.

Erdogan said the bill was a result of "racist and discriminatory" attitude toward Turkey.

He warned of new, unspecified sanctions against France if the bill is signed into a law.

"For us it is null and void," Erdogan said. "We still have not lost our hope that it can be corrected."

Turkey's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday strongly condemned the decision, saying the law should not be enacted to "avoid this being recorded as part of France's political, legal and moral mistakes."

The only way the bill can be stopped from becoming law before Sarkozy signs off on it is if the French prime minister, the presidents of either house of parliament or a group of either 60 deputies or 60 senators ask the Constitutional Council to examine the bill to determine if it's constitutional.

"I hope 60 senators appeal to the Constitutional Council to eliminate this shadow over French democracy," Turkish President Abdullah Gul said. "If the bill is not taken to the Constitutional Council and finalized, Turkish-French relations will be dealt a heavy blow."

If the law is signed, "we will not hesitate to implement, as we deem appropriate, the measures that we have considered in advance," Turkey's Foreign Ministry said. It did not elaborate on the measures.

The debate surrounding the measure comes in the highly charged run-up to France's presidential elections this spring, and critics have called the move a ploy by Sarkozy to garner the votes of the some 500,000 Armenians who live in France.

"It is further unfortunate that the historical ... relations between the Republic of Turkey and France have been sacrificed to considerations of political agenda," Turkey's foreign ministry said. "It is quite clear where the responsibility for this lies."

Officials in Sarkozy's conservative government were in damage-control mode on Tuesday, appealing to Turkey's government to keep its calm.

"As foreign minister, I think this initiative was a bit inopportune. But the parliament has thus decided. What I'd like to do today is call on our Turkish friends to keep their composure," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Canal Plus TV. "After this wave that has been a little bit excessive, I have to say I'm convinced that we will return to constructive relations — I extend my hand, I hope it will be taken one day."

The Elysee appeared prudently optimistic about warnings brandished by Turkey because of the common economic and diplomatic interests the two countries share. There is a sense that Turkey will not hurt itself by imposing any new sanctions.

The hope is that "our Turkish allies will remain calm and reflect well on the consequences" of any future measures, the Elysee official said.

"In the end, we think the Turks will choose what's best for them."

Turkish media slammed Sarkozy: "(He) massacred democracy," read the banner headline of the leading Hurriyet newspaper while the Sozcu daily blasted "Sarkozy the Satan."

France's relations with Turkey are already strained, in large part because Sarkozy opposes Turkey's entry into the European Union. The law is likely to further sour relations with a NATO member that is playing an increasingly important role in the international community's response to the violence in Syria, the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and peace negotiations in the Middle East.

The Senate voted 127 to 86 to pass the bill late Monday. Twenty-four people abstained. The measure sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of euro45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings.

Some Turks said Turkey should retaliate in kind. The Turkish prime minister has accused the French of "genocide" during France's 132-year colonial rule in Algeria.

"I think our country should have retaliated in the same way after the French Bill has passed," Yilmaz Sesen, a chemist, told AP television in Ankara. "They have committed genocide in North Africa, and not too long ago either."

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Elaine Ganley, Sarah DiLorenzo and Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris.