France and Turkey in war of words over Armenian genocide


What's in a word? When it comes to Genocide a lot.
A Turkish man holds a placard reading 'Genocide is a lie' in front of the French Consulate in Istanbul following vote in French Parliament making it a crime to deny the death of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman empire was genocide



Genocide is as emotive a word as there is in whatever language it is expressed. Yesterday, French parliamentarians in the National Assembly (lower house) voted to outlaw genocide denial in the case of the Armenians.

This is no bit of gesture politics. After yesterday's vote, in France, to publicly deny the Armenian genocide - if the bill completes the legislative process and becomes law - would carry a fine of 45,000 euros and up to one year in prison.

In 1915, Ottoman troops slaughtered an estimated 1.5 million Armenians living in eastern Turkey. Most historians accept that this action fits the definition of genocide. Turks and their government angrily differ. The numbers are exaggerated, the deaths took place in the context of a civil war in which ethnic Turks also lost their lives and were forced out of their homes, is the official and popular view in Turkey.

It is an emotional view as well. As soon as the vote was finished, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reacted angrily and accused the French government of "fanning hatred of Muslims and Turks for electoral gains."

He added, "France massacred an estimated 15 per cent of the Algerian population starting from 1945. This is genocide."

Erdogan recalled his ambassador and has frozen all political/diplomatic contacts for the moment.

Turkish newspapers back the Erdogan actions. This comment by Bulent Kenes in Zaman is typical.

"With this outdated effort, French President Nicolas Sarkozy betrayed, first, France and, then, universal freedom of thought and expression. By introducing bans to one side of the debate about a controversial issue that must be settled by historians and just ahead of the presidential elections, he showed everyone what democracy à la Sarkozy is."

French newspapers aren't too excited by the event either. Caroline Fourest in Le Monde writes, "the Armenian Genocide raises a thousand passions and a thousand questions." Before questioning the value of "dictating history by law."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spent the day trying to smooth the situation, according to Liberation. "I respect the convictions of our Turkish friends. It is a great country, a great civilization. " But Sarkozy reminded Erdogan that the respect must be mutual. "France has its convictions: the rights of man, the respect for memory."

His Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was more blunt. He said of yesterday's vote, "It was not opportune."

Why did the French parliament bother with the vote? France has half a million citizens of Armenian descent and there is an election coming up in May. That could have something to do with it.