Armenia issue shows French rift on EU, Turkey

14th December 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 14 (AFP) - Days ahead of a crucial EU decision on Turkish accession talks, Paris has raised the highly sensitive issue of the Armenian "tragedy" - an indication of the sharp divisions of opinion in France over Ankara's membership bid.

PARIS, Dec 14 (AFP) - Days ahead of a crucial EU decision on Turkish accession talks, Paris has raised the highly sensitive issue of the Armenian "tragedy" - an indication of the sharp divisions of opinion in France over Ankara's membership bid.

At a summit in Brussels this week heads of government from the 25 member states are to give a green light for the opening of membership negotiations, probably some time next year, while at the same time warning the process could take more than a decade.

On Monday French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier risked angering Ankara when he unexpectedly announced France would ask it to "recognise the Armenian tragedy of the start of the (last) century ... Turkey must carry out this task as a memorial."

Asked Tuesday whether this amounted to a pre-condition for opening talks on EU membership, Barnier this was legally not possible, but he said it was "a question that we will raise in the course of negotiations, and we have around 10 years to raise it."

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians are believed to have died between 1915 and 1917 in the last years of the Ottoman empire, an episode referred to by Armenians as their "genocide".

But the government in Ankara disputes the scale and nature of the killing. In France, which has a large Armenian community, the "genocide" has become a highly politicised subject. In 2001 the then Socialist-dominated National Assembly voted to recognise that "genocide" had occurred - prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador.

Barnier's decision to raise the Armenia issue was being interpreted Tuesday as a bid to reassure a French public that remains by a clear majority hostile to Ankara's application to join the European Union.

While President Jacques Chirac has publicly stated his support for Turkey's eventual membership, he is opposed by a majority of his own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) as well as many in the opposition Socialists. A recent poll showed that 56 percent of the public is against Turkish membership, compared to only 38 percent in favour.

Promising to ensure that the Armenian "tragedy" is tabled during entry negotiations is a way of signalling to the French public that the government has not forgotten their concerns, commentators said.

Chirac is known to be worried that the prospect of Turkish admission could sour French attitudes to the EU just ahead of a promised referendum next year on the union's proposed constitution, possibly even leading to its rejection.

To reassure voters, the president has already undertaken to change the country's constitution so that all future applications to the EU - including Turkey's - would have to be approved by a national referendum in France.

He and Barnier have also said that talks with Turkey may result in a "privileged partnership" rather than full-scale membership - although they insist this is France's desired objective.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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