France defies Turkey to vote on Armenian genocide bill
France put at risk its ties with Turkey, a key NATO ally and one of Europe's fastest growing economies, on Thursday, when lawmakers debated a bill to ban the denial of the Armenian genocide.
Turkey has threatened diplomatic and trade sanctions if the bill is passed, accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party of pandering to France's large Armenian community ahead of elections next year.
France wants to work closely with Turkey on dealing with the Iranian nuclear stand-off and the crisis in Syria, as well as tap into its large market, and the effects of a breakdown in relations could be major.
But ruling party lawmakers are determined to pass a bill that would make it a crime to deny the century-old deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the hands of Turkish Ottoman forces amounted to a genocide.
The debate began Thursday under tight security, after around 4,000 Turkish expatriates living in France gathered outside parliament to protest the vote and to denounce the dark periods in France's own history.
"I'm astonished that at the moment when Turkey is knocking on the door of the European Union, this great country is inciting its nationals to protest in France," declared Valerie Boyer, the UMP lawmaker sponsoring the bill.
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 nest 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 that it was a genocide, ascribing the toll to the fighting and accusing the Armenians of siding with Russian invaders.
Turkey has branded the French law an attack on freedom of expression and historical inquiry, and its ruling and opposition parties jointly denounced it as a "grave, unacceptable and historic mistake."
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "Tomorrow probably I will announce what we will do at the first stage and we will announce what kind of sanctions we will have at the second and third stages."
The extent of the threatened sanctions is not yet clear, but Ankara has said they would begin with the recall of its ambassador to Paris and could see French firms excluded from bidding on Turkish public works contracts.
Franco-Turkish relations are often tense -- Sarkozy is a strong 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.
France's minister for European affairs, Jean Leonetti, said he had no doubt that diplomatic ties with "this great country, indispensable for the balance of power in the world and the Middle East" would recover.
The French law would impose a 45,000 euro fine and a year in prison for anyone in France who denies the genocide. The first vote was expected later Thursday, but it will not be definitively adopted until next year.
© 2011 AFP