Tensions between Ankara and Paris over the Armenian question
by NAT da Polis
The French National Assembly has adopted a draft bill that would impose jail time and fines on anyone who denies the Armenian genocide. Erdogan’s government withdraws its ambassador in Paris and accuses France of genocide. Military cooperation is suspended and an economic boycott is a possibility. Istanbul’s Armenians and the Armenian Patriarchate are cool at the French move. Turkey’s entry into the European Union gets a bit harder.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Franco-Turkish relations have never been easy under President Nicolas Sarkozy. This time, the issue is not the legitimacy of Turkey’s place in Europe, but rather the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 against the Armenians, an action never acknowledged by the secularist state founded by Kemal Ataturk or by today’s neo-Ottomanist government under Erdogan.

The spark that set off the controversy is a bill before the French National Assembly that would criminalise denying the Armenian holocaust with up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 Euros. France had already recognised the Armenian genocide in 2001.

In his statements, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was dour and bombastic, accusing France of being discriminatory, racist and xenophobic. Angry, the prime minister said that France’s “step will open heavy wounds that will be difficult to heal”. Instead, the French should look at their own genocides in Algeria and Rwanda.

Before the bill was adopted, thousands of Turks gathered in front of the French parliament to protest. As a first response, Erdogan recalled the Turkish ambassador in Paris for consultations. He also suspended military cooperation with France, cancelled military agreements with Paris, froze bilateral deals and suspended political and economic contacts between the two countries.

Measured and conventional, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé urged Ankara to remain calm and not overreact. “We have lots of things to work on together,” he said. The draft bill is expected to be go before the French Senate in February 2012 ahead of France’s presidential elections. Back in May of this year, the Senate had refused to criminalise genocide denial.

In Turkey, reactions reflect the clichés usually associated with Erdogan and his ruling party, the AKP, closely following the official version of events, which backs Ottoman wartime policies and claims, whereby what happened in 1915 was sad but inevitable.

Various meetings and protests have also been organised by academic and commercial groups in Paris. In Turkey, the bill has allowed Erdogan to rally opposition parties, CHP and MJP, against France.

In Istanbul, the local Armenian community, especially people close to the newspaper Agos, which was edited by Hrant Dink until 2007 when he was murdered by Turkish ultra-nationalists, think that the French bill is a disaster for freedom of thought. For them, what counts is the “human aspect of the genocide”.

The Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul issued a press release, seen by many as deceitful and full of religious sentiments. Armenian journalist, Mark Yesayan thinks that it might have been made on the request of people in high places.

Turkey’s liberal and leftwing circles view the French law as a foolish move by Sarkozy to win the Armenian vote in the upcoming presidential elections.

They note that the attempt by the Turkish government to criticise France in the name of freedom of thought is inappropriate given Turkey’s own shortcomings in the matter. For them, Erdogan’s reference to Algerian and Rwanda cannot legitimise Turkey’s official position. Sadly, they believe the country lacks the maturity and courage, at an individual and collective level, to face its own history.

Turkish analysts believe the French Senate will approve the bill and that the European Court of Human Rights will uphold it because it does not violate European law.

Significantly, diplomatic circles in Brussels see a connection between statements by Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bağış, a possible boycott of French products, and the recent crisis between the European Union and Great Britain.

Great Britain’s isolation in the European Union will hinder, not help Turkey’s EU membership bid. London has always been a keen supporter of Ankara.