Commentary

Turkey and France at Odds Over Armenian 'Genocide' Bill

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

The French Senate this week passed a bill criminalizing the denial of the Armenian “genocide” in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The bill, which now awaits the signature of the French President Nikolas Sarkozy, has predictably provoked an intense response in Turkey. While some are focusing on the next step in Franco-Turkish relations, others are stressing that whatever the response, the manner in which it will be delivered must remain dignified.

According to an AP report posted on Lebanon’s The Daily Star, “Turkey warned the French president Tuesday against signing a law that makes it a crime to deny that the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago constituted genocide, saying such a move would deal a heavy blow to the relations between the two countries....Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the bill was a result of a ‘racist and discriminatory’ attitude toward Turkey. He warned of new, unspecified sanctions against France if the bill is signed into a law. ‘For us it is null and void,’ Erdogan said. ‘We still have not lost our hope that it can be corrected.’...Turkish media slammed Sarkozy: ‘[He] massacred democracy,’ read the banner headline of the leading Hurriyet newspaper while the Sozcu daily blasted ‘Sarkozy the Satan.’”

The Turkish daily Sabah’s staff looks at what could happen next: “The approval of the bill by the French Senate [prompted] Ankara to establish a new wave of sanctions. Should Sarkozy approve the bill’s passing, then the button will be pressed on activating the next move against France. The first step will be to request that France's Ankara Ambassador depart the country. To follow will be the postponement of any political collaboration with France, especially directed towards Syria. The flight/port embargo in effect in military zones will now also include civilian arenas. THY's Airbus purchase will be out on hold. Collaboration in the international platform will be halted for the time being. Action will be taken to ensure rulings against France are made in the spring PACE session. Legal measures will be addressed in order to cancel out the ruling deemed to go against both freedom of thought and expression.”

In an op-ed for Today’s Zaman, Orhan Kemal Cengiz considers the reasons why the French government decided to move forward with the bill: “Does France really want Turkey to confront its past, to see a more democratic Turkey, to see Turkey as a good neighbor to Armenia? Why then it is so strongly against Turkey’s accession to the EU?...Sarkozy and like-minded people in Europe share the same agenda with some Turkish nationalists and with the Turkish deep state. They all want to end Turkey’s progress toward becoming a member of the EU. They want to see an isolated Turkey....Some Armenians may think Sarkozy is trying to help them force Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide. However, if they pay more attention, they could easily see that Sarkozy’s mind works in exactly the same manner as the people who did terrible things to Armenians in 1915 in Anatolia. They are all nationalist.”

However, skepticism about French motives is not limited to the Turkish commentators. The Gulf based Khaleej Times’ editorial asserts: “It is naïve to suppose that the French government had a purely altruistic motive behind this move for the sake of the Armenians. Especially now when the run up to the presidential elections is around the corner, Sarkozy’s ambitions to secure the 500,000 votes of Armenians living in France seem to be the deciding factor.... With the Senate having given the go ahead with only the President left to sign it into a formal legislation, this could be the final blow to the multilateral relations between the two. Irrespective of how Sarkozy now handles this delicate matter, the bigger question is if France’s recent legislations, including the banning of the veil along with the punishable by law genocide bill are even justified in terms of individual liberty and freedom of choice.”

Yet, many in Turkey are calling for calm and measured steps in the face of perceived French hostility. Hurriyet Daily News’ Mustafa Akyol takes the higher road and suggests: “Let France go down its own illiberal path; let us focus on expanding the liberty of our own. Let us, for example, organize more conferences and debates in Turkey in which the fate of Ottoman Armenians can be freely discussed by people from all views without any thought police. If we want to boycott French products, let’s be lenient on Renault, Citroen and Danone. There are much worse French products that we have been unwisely buying for a century: assimilationism (instead of pluralism), statism (instead of limited government) and laïcité (instead of a liberal secularity)….Let’s make Turkey a country in which no one goes to jail for what he thinks. Unlike France, let us be free.”

Opining on the pages of the same paper, Mehmet Ali Birand also argues in favor of calm and measured steps: “Our reactions will be perceived as clues to our future reactions. Overreacting will isolate us, will make us look unjust and will self-inflict wounds. Let us not forget, tomorrow is the United States’ turn. Maybe, the next day Germany or Spain will join this convoy. We should be calculating now what we will do then....I think Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction yesterday was very healthy. I believe it is much more correct to act calmly instead of shouting and storming, instead of deciding on embargoes that would damage our own selves. Of course there will be reactions and measures will come, but the attitude should be ‘European.’”


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