Dispute over Mass Killings of Armenians French Law Outrages Turks

French lawmakers have voted to make it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians that occurred in Turkey during World War I amounted to genocide. The decision has caused outrage among both politicians and critical intellectuals in Turkey. Now France faces economic retaliation from Ankara.
Von Jürgen Gottschlich

"There is a century-long friendship between Turkey and France. Now, with this decision, France is destroying the basis of that friendship," says Onur Oymen, a Turkish parliamentarian and member of the opposition Social Democrats. Oymen, who was visibly shaken as he spoke, is one of three Turkish members of parliament who travelled to Paris in response to French lawmakers debating a bill on the mass killings of Armenians that occurred in Turkey during World War I.

Turkey didn't give up hope until the very last moment that lawmakers in the lower house of the French parliament would vote against the bill, which criminalizes statements denying that Turkish mass killings of Armenians during World War I constitute genocide. The bill passed by 106 votes to 19, despite the fact that the government of French President Jacques Chirac opposed it. Many lawmakers simply chose not to attend the session during which the vote took place.

Now, intense outrage is expected to erupt on Turkish streets. Followers of the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) have already staged demonstrations during the past days, and popular outrage at France is expected to peak during the days to come. Most Turks view the bill as just the latest humiliation from France -- a symbolic rejection of Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union.

A broad majority of people in the West believe the mass killings of Armenians that occurred in Turkey during the decline of the Ottoman Empire fit the definition of genocide. But criminalizing the opposing viewpoint is unlikely to change the minds of Turks who feel their country is being unjustly accused.

Prior to the French vote, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that "a lie is still a lie, even if another parliament decides otherwise." Of course, he made that statement with support from a majority of the Turkish population. At the same time, Erdogan also sought to assuage tensions between France and Turkey, explicitly rejecting a proposal from his governing faction to respond to Paris by declaring French war crimes in Algeria to be a case of genocide. But Turkey has officially said it will respond to the French law by means of economic retaliation.

The Turkish government has announced it will call off a French-Turkish business deal involving military technology, in addition to excluding French companies from the bidding process for construction of a planned nuclear reactor in Turkey. Political parties, patriotic groups and other associations will also demand a boycott of French products -- a move that will likely have even more serious effects on French-Turkish economic relations. If the boycott gains traction, French companies stand to lose a great deal. For example, car-maker Renault has a major plant near Istanbul. Turkey is also an important market for the French supermarket chain Carrefour. In the run-up to the vote, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul alluded to France's economic dependence on Turkey. "If this bill is passed, Turkey will not lose anything," he said, "but France will lose Turkey."

Turkish intellectuals reject French decision

But it's the democratic forces that have been fighting to defend freedom of expression in Turkey for years who have been most damaged by the bill. These groups have long tried to raise public awareness of the mass killings of Armenians, and the fact that freedom of expression will now be curbed in France creates a paradoxical situation for these groups. "How are we supposed to argue against laws that prohibit us from talking about genocide, when France is now doing exactly the same, just the other way round?" asks Hrant Dink, one of Istanbul's most prominent Armenian intellectuals. "It's completely irrational."

Dink is editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, which has tried in recent years to promote a public debate on Turkish crimes against the Armenians. Along with other Turkish and Turkish-Armenian intellectuals, Dink organized a conference on the Armenian question in Istanbul last year. It was the first time that the official version of Turkish history was publicly debated in Turkey. "If this law goes into effect, I'll be the first to travel to Paris to violate it," says Dink.

He is unlikely to be the only one. Take former Maoist Dogu Perincek, now the leader of a nationalist sect, who may prove unable to resist the opportunity to stir up trouble in France. Last year in Berlin, he organized a demonstration to mobilize Germans against the "genocide lie." He has also already been arrested in Switzerland, where a law similar to that voted through in France has already been in effect for some time. The arrest was a propaganda coup for Perincek, and Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher confessed during a visit to Turkey two weeks ago that the law has been a major headache for the country.

Additionally, the Armenian minority population in Turkey is expecting trouble. The Armenian patriarch in Istanbul, Mesrop Mutafyan, says the French law will have a detrimental effect on attempts to establish a dialogue and a sense of mutual understanding between Armenians and Turks. In recent years, Armenians have been viewed more positively than they used to be, and the same has been true for Turkey's other Christian minority, the Greeks -- especially in Istanbul. But the French vote could now prove to be a setback for these minority groups.

Relations between Turkey and the neighboring state of Armenia may also be negatively affected. The informal talks initiated between the two countries last year will probably be discontinued. The talks represent an attempt to explore the possibilities for normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations, if only at a purely bureaucratic level. Turkish nationalists are already demanding that the roughly 70,000 Armenians who work illegally in Turkey -- and who have until now been quietly tolerated by the government in Ankara -- be expelled.

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