French Senate passes Armenian genocide bill

Protesters demonstrate over the Armenia issue outside the French embassy in Ankara in December 2011.

Story highlights

  • Turkey calls the vote "first and foremost a loss for France"
  • Armenia praises the vote and thanks the French
  • The French Senate approved the controversial legislation 127-86
  • Turkey expressed anger over the bill when it passed the National Assembly in December

The French Senate voted late Monday to criminalize any public denial of what new legislation calls the Ottoman Empire's genocide of Armenians, triggering fresh condemnation from modern Turkey.

Relations between France and Turkey have already deteriorated since the National Assembly -- the lower house of the French parliament -- voted to approve the bill in December. The Turkish government called Monday's vote "an example of irresponsibility" and vowed to "express our reaction against it in every platform."

It is already illegal in France to deny the Holocaust of World War II, a crime punishable by a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,500). The same punishment would be used under the Armenian legislation.

Monday night's 127-86 vote sends the legislation to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has indicated he would sign it. Armenia's government hailed the vote, saying France "reaffirmed its pivotal role as a genuine defender of universal human values." But Turkey, one of France's NATO allies, called it "an entirely unfortunate step for French politics."

"Politicization of the understanding of justice and history through other people's past and damaging freedom of expression in a tactless manner are first and foremost a loss for France," it in a statement on the vote. "It is obvious that the interpretation of historical events cannot be determined by the attitude of French politicians who see in themselves the right to judge other nations on the basis of one-sided views and declare a judgment on a serious allegation of crime such as genocide, thereby ignoring the principles of international law."

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The statement added, "Turkey is determined to take every step required against this unjust action, which disregards basic human values and public conscience."

The Turkish-Armenian controversy over the killings that took place last century has reverberated wherever diaspora communities representing both groups exist. Armenian groups and many scholars argue that Turks committed genocide starting in 1915, when more than a million ethnic Armenians were massacred in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey officially denies that a genocide took place, saying hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims died in intercommunal violence around the bloody battlefields of World War I.

Before the vote, Sen. Herve Marseille, one of the bill's supporters, argued that since France already recognizes the Ottoman-era killings as genocide, the same standard that applies to Holocaust denial should apply to the Armenian case.

"When we contest the Jewish genocide, we can be punished," Marseille said. "And up until now, when we contest the Armenian genocide, there is no punishment. So we can't have a legal punishment for one and not for the other. Everyone is equal in front of the law."

But Sen. Jacques Mézard, who opposed the legislation, said freedom of expression was at stake.

"It calls into question historical and scientific research. Tomorrow will there be a question of a Vendée genocide?" he asked, referring to a revolt against the French revolutionary government in 1793. "Will we put the Spanish and the United States in the stocks for the massacre of Native Americans? We must reject this text and consign it to history books."

After December's vote in the National Assembly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused France of committing its own "genocide" during its war against Algerian independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Erdogan announced that Turkey was reviewing its ties with France. Ankara recalled its ambassador to Paris for consultations, canceled bilateral visits and wouldn't cooperate with France in joint projects within the European Union.

The French Foreign Ministry shot back at Erdogan's comments, saying France "assumes with clarity and transparency its duty to remember the tragedies that have marked its history." And Sarkozy has said that his country doesn't need an OK from another nation to develop its policies.

In addition to being NATO allies, Turkey and France have trade ties valued at $13.5 billion, according to Turkish statistics.

The genocide debate is also a source of tension between Turkey and the United States, another NATO ally. The White House, for example, annually beats back efforts in Congress to pass a resolution that would formally recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide.

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