France defies Turkey anger to back Armenian genocide bill
French lawmakers voted to threaten those who deny the Armenian genocide with jail on Thursday, drawing a furious response from Turkey, which immediately imposed diplomatic and military sanctions.
Turkey and some domestic critics have accused President Nicolas Sarkozy's government of endangering ties with a key NATO ally and trading partner in order to pander to France's large Armenian community ahead of elections.
But many French lawmakers insist the law -- which will impose a 45,000 euro fine and a one-year jail term on genocide deniers -- is an overdue measure to protect the memory of one of the 20th century's worst massacres.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the vote would open "irreparable wounds" in relations with France as he suspended political visits and froze military cooperation between the two nominal allies.
The Turkish embassy in Paris said its ambassador had been recalled and would leave Friday, and angry crowds in Ankara chanted: "We have not committed genocide, we defended the homeland. Wait for us France, we will come."
France's lower house, the National Assembly, was sparsely attended, but several dozen lawmakers from all parties voted on a show of hands to back the bill and only a half dozen voted against it.
The draft law will now be debated by the Senate and parliamentary committees, and may be enacted early next year, despite reported concerns from the foreign ministry in Paris about damage to ties with Turkey.
France works with Turkey on dealing with the Iranian nuclear stand-off and the crisis in Syria, and French firms want to tap its large market, so the effects of a breakdown in relations could be major.
But many lawmakers were determined to pass a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the almost century-old deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the hands of Turkish Ottoman forces amounted to genocide.
"We're not trying to write history but to make an indispensable political act," Patrick Devedjian, a lawmaker of Armenian descent, told parliament.
He noted that several Turkish writers had been prosecuted for the reverse offence of "affirming the existence" of the 1915 genocide and claimed that Turkey had recognised in 1919 that crimes had been committed.
"Now, Turkey is falling into revisionism and denies its own history," he claimed, to general support from his colleagues.
The law penalises the denial of any massacre recognised as genocide by the state, but as yet this list only includes the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide -- and Holocaust denial is already illegal under French law.
The debate was held under tight security, after around 4,000 Turkish expatriates living in France gathered outside parliament to protest.
The official line from Sarkozy's government is that the genocide law is an idea of parliament. On Thursday it defended the right of lawmakers to vote on the issue, without specifically endorsing it.
But the government made sure there was time on the parliamentary calendar to vote on the issue, and it is largely supported by members of Sarkozy's UMP. Turkey has said it blames the French "executive".
According to the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is furious about the "stupid" bill, arguing that it will provoke a damaging rift with Ankara for purely political ends.
Juppe's office refused to confirm or deny the report.
France is home to around 500,000 citizens of Armenian descent and they are seen as a key source of support for Sarkozy and the UMP ahead of presidential and legislative elections in April and June next year.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed during World War I by the forces of Turkey's former Ottoman Empire.
Turkey disputes the figure, arguing that only 500,000 died, and denies this was genocide, ascribing the toll to fighting and starvation during World War I and accusing the Armenians of siding with Russian invaders.
Franco-Turkish relations are often tense -- Sarkozy is a firm opponent of allowing Turkey to join the European Union -- but 1,000 French firms work there and trade between the two is worth 12 billion euros per year.
Much of Europe, including France, is facing recession amid a sovereign debt crisis, but Turkey enjoys growth rates in excess of eight percent and, with 78 million people, it is a huge potential market.
© 2011 AFP