The Armenian Weekly Magazine
In recent months, this controversial topic has made worldwide headlines.
Beyond just a legal, ethical, and philosophical controversy, this issue has brought NATO allies France and Turkey to a major confrontation, disrupting their mutual political, economic, cultural, and military ties.
Let us briefly review the historical background and the lobbying efforts of the French-Armenian community, the Turkish government’s counter-lobbying (perhaps more appropriately described as bullying), and the awkward, vacillating position of French officials caught in the middle of the two battling sides.
The French Parliament first recognized the Armenian Genocide on May 28, 1998. The French Senate recognized it on Nov. 7, 2000. But because of the intervening elections between the two votes, the Parliament had to vote on it for a second time on Jan. 18, 2001.
Then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac on Jan. 29, 2001 signed the following single-sentence law: “France publicly recognizes the Armenian Genocide of 1915.”
As the reader may have noticed, there is no mention of Turks or Turkey in this law. They were not accused of committing a genocide; yet, with a guilty conscience, Turkish officials immediately identified themselves as the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, and, in protest, withdrew their ambassador from Paris.
However, even after the adoption of this law, French-Armenians continued to endure Turkish state-sponsored lies and ridicule, which repeatedly insulted the sacred memory of their ancestors who were victims of the genocide.
Such denial also violated the French law on the Armenian Genocide but with impunity. In 1990, France had adopted another law that penalized the denial of the Jewish Holocaust. French-Armenians soon-after began demanding the same legal protection.
If one is punished for denying the Jewish Holocaust, then there should be a similar punishment for denying the Armenian Genocide. There should be no discrimination among genocide victims and no double standards.
In the United States, we highly value our freedom of speech and expression. However, even in this country, freedom of expression has certain limitations. For example, one can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater and cause a tragic stampede. And one can’t libel or slander others.
In France, there are even more limitations on free speech. Those who think it unacceptable to punish someone for denying a genocide should remember that we are talking about legal limitations in the context of the value system of another country, not those of the U.S.
Since there are already many laws in France that restrict free speech, including the denial of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide law of 2001 had to be brought to its logical conclusion by setting a penalty for all those who break that law.
After several years of lobbying, the French-Armenian community finally succeeded in getting the French Parliament to adopt a bill, in 2006, that set a penalty of one-year imprisonment and a 45,000 euro ($60,000) fine for denying the Armenian Genocide.
To become law, this bill had to also be approved by the French Senate. President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, just like someone in the White House, did not keep his promise to his Armenian constituents and blocked its adoption by the French Senate. A second attempt failed in the Senate in May 2011.
New developments in late 2011, however, came to breathe new life into this bill.
In October 2011, Sarkozy visited the three Caucasus republics. It was obvious that something had changed in the French president’s outlook on the Armenian Genocide bill. He spent only a couple of hours in Azerbaijan and Georgia, while staying overnight in Armenia.
Sarkozy also made powerful pro-Armenian remarks while in Yerevan. He warned Turkey that he would take additional steps, meaning that he would support the bill criminalizing genocide denial, if Ankara did not recognize the Armenian Genocide in a couple of months.
No one really knows what prompted Sarkozy to change his position on this issue. World-famous French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour had recently blasted Sarkozy for not keeping his promise to Armenians, warning him that no Armenian would vote for him in the April 2012 presidential elections. However, those who think that Sarkozy supported the genocide bill to win the votes of 500,000 French-Armenians in the elections are sadly mistaken. To begin with, the 500,000 figure is grossly exaggerated; there are only around 400,000 Armenians in France. And many of them cannot vote, either because they are recent immigrants from Armenia or are under the legal voting age. That leaves at most 100,000 eligible French-Armenian voters. Since the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of France has already endorsed Francois Hollande, the leader of the Socialist Party and Sarkozy’s rival in the presidential election, Sarkozy would likely not get more than 50,000 Armenian votes.
Can anyone honestly believe that the president of a major country like France, just before the presidential elections, would:
1) carelessly risk billions of dollars of trade with Turkey during such tough economic times?
2) create a major confrontation with Turkey, a fellow NATO member?
3) antagonize French exporters, the military establishment, members of the media, and influential intellectuals who oppose restrictions of any kind on their ability to express controversial opinions?
This is all highly unlikely for a mere 50,000 Armenian votes, out of the millions of French votes to be cast, especially when there are at least as many Turkish voters as Armenian ones among the 500,000 recent Turkish immigrants to France.
There may be other reasons why Sarkozy supported the Armenian bill, such as his long-standing opposition to Turkey joining the European Union (EU), and his intent to win the votes of millions of French citizens who are antagonistic to Turks, Muslims, and foreigners in general.
Just to be a little charitable to Sarkozy, let’s also assume that he wanted to keep his campaign promise, at long last.
In my opinion, there are three main reasons why, in late 2011, the Armenian bill got a new boost: The first is Sarkozy’s unexpected support for the bill. The second is the support of Francois Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate. Significantly, the Socialist Party won the majority of seats in the Senate in last September’s elections. Thus, for the first time, the two largest political parties in the French legislature, and the two leading presidential candidates, supported the genocide bill. The third reason is the decision of the European Union in 2008 to have all 26-member countries adopt laws that punish racism, xenophobia, denial of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Based on this new EU initiative, Valerie Boyer, a French Parliamentary member, proposed a new law that would ban denial of all genocides recognized by France, without specifically mentioning the Armenian Genocide. But, since France only officially recognizes two genocides—the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide—and Holocaust denial is already banned, the new law would effectively ban denial of the Armenian Genocide.
Notice how, once again, the text of this proposed law does not mention Turks or Turkey, nor even the Armenian Genocide. Nevertheless, Turkish officials went into overdrive with their usual threats, pressures, and insults, identifying themselves as perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.
The Turks’ bullying tactics, however, did not scare off the legislators. On Dec. 22, 2011, the French Parliament voted to approve the genocide bill.
Turkey once again withdrew its ambassador from Paris, only to return him after a couple of weeks. A month later, despite more Turkish threats to cut off economic, political, military, and cultural ties with France, the Senate, after a heated seven-and-a-half hour debate, approved the genocide bill on Jan. 23, 2012, with a vote of 127 to 86.
Significantly, not a single member of the French Parliament or Senate, not even those who voted against the bill, questioned the reality of the Armenian Genocide.
After the bill was approved by the Senate, Sarkozy had 15 days to sign it into law. He did not rush to sign it (perhaps because he did not want to be accused of depriving the bill’s opponents of the opportunity to challenge its constitutionality). Unfortunately, Sarkozy did not anticipate that the bill’s opponents would be able to collect the 60 signatures needed to appeal the bill to the Constitutional Council. Even if he had signed before its appeal, the new law would have been contested as soon as someone was arrested for denying the Armenian Genocide.
Imagine how much more disappointed the supporters of the new law would have been if it were to be thrown out after it was signed into law by the president!
The Turkish government and its surrogates not only used threats and even personal inducements, but hired a French lobbying firm (contradicting their announced boycott of French companies) to collect the necessary signatures and appeal to the Constitutional Council on Jan. 31.
The council is comprised of 11 prominent individuals, including 2 former presidents and several former legislators. Some of the council members had serious conflicts of interest involving their families who had business ties to Turkey, or had taken a position against this bill when they were in the legislature. Most amazingly, one of them was a member of the Bosphorus Institute, a Turkish think-tank that lobbied against this bill.
After a French newspaper exposed their sinister affiliations, two members of the council removed themselves from sitting in judgment on the bill, and former President Chirac did not participate in the vote due to illness.
That left eight members. At least two others should have withdrawn their names due to conflict of interest, in which case only six members would have remained—one short of a quorum.
Unfortunately, the eight members of the Constitutional Council on Feb. 28 decided that the genocide bill was unconstitutional because it violated freedom of speech. The council members, however, failed to explain why punishing denial of the Holocaust is not a restriction on free speech while punishing denial of the Armenian Genocide is.
French-Armenians are now planning to appeal the council’s ruling to the European Court of Human Rights.
After the council’s negative decision, Sarkozy repeated his earlier pledge to re-submit to the legislature a revised bill taking into account the council’s objections. Hollande, his Socialist rival, who is ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, also pledged to bring up the bill again.
Unfortunately, the French legislature is now in recess due to the upcoming presidential elections, making it impossible to submit a revised bill to the Parliament and Senate at this time.
Sarkozy now promises to, if re-elected, bring up this bill in June. Hollande has made the same pledge. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Armenians have learned from previous disappointing experiences not to trust politicians who make campaign promises.
It is important to pass this law in France and other countries in order to stop Turkey from exporting its denialist policies beyond its borders. Switzerland and Slovakia have already adopted laws penalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide.
And for those who naively say that Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code—the so-called “insulting Turkishness” law—which makes it a crime to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, is the same thing as the French bill (thinking that both restrict free speech), that is not the case, at all! When this bill is adopted, it would be against the law in France to lie about genocide, whereas in Turkey, telling the truth is against the law.
Even though Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared victory after the French bill was ruled unconstitutional, this is just a temporary setback and not a final defeat for the Armenian side.
French-Armenians will very likely continue to support this bill until it is signed into law. Even if it does not pass, Armenians will seek other avenues to pursue justice for the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Punishing genocide deniers is not as critical as the pursuit of more important demands, such as restitution and return of Armenian properties, churches, and the occupied territories of Western Armenia.
Pursuing the just cause of a people is a marathon race, not a sprint.
Armenians are an ancient nation. Throughout their long history, they have overcome and survived many calamities, invasions, wars, and even genocide.
Armenians will certainly continue their struggle until they realize their long sought-after dream.