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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Thursday, October 12, 2006

France seeks to calm uproar after approving Armenia genocide bill

PARIS (AFP) - France has sought to calm an uproar in Turkey and in the European Union after the French parliament approved a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the 1915-17 massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks constituted genocide.

The French foreign ministry insisted that Paris was still "very keen" on dialogue with Turkey and wanted its "strong ties" with that country to continue.

But a furious Ankara -- which strongly contests the use of the term genocide -- was in no mood to listen, saying that France had dealt "a heavy blow" to longstanding bilateral relations.

Turkish parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc called the vote "shameful" and said it reflected a "hostile attitude".

European Commission also criticised the French bill, saying it would hinder efforts to heal the wounds caused by the Armenian carnage nine decades ago.

The sharp reactions came after France's lower house of parliament, the 577-seat National Assembly, approved the bill by 106 votes to 19. It now goes to the upper house, the Senate, for another vote.

If voted into law, it would become a crime in France to deny that the killings of the Armenians were genocide. Those violating the law would face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros (57,000 dollars).

Although introduced by the opposition Socialist Party,
President Jacques Chirac's ruling centre-right UMP party did not use its parliamentary majority to block the bill. Some UMP parliamentarians voted in favour of it but most were simply absent for the vote.

The clash over the bill highlighted broader tensions between France and Turkey over the latter's bid to join the European Union.

While Chirac has championed Ankara's ambition, he has had to soften his support somewhat in the face of domestic opposition even within his own party.

The French government has done what it can to put distance between itself and the bill.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said: "We are very keen on dialogue with Turkey, as well as on the strong ties of friendship and cooperation which link us to that country."

But the spat dividing them has been festering since 2001, when France adopted a law officially calling the Armenian massacres a genocide.

The new bill seeks to build on that by criminalising those who disagree, much in the same manner as a French law that outlaws revisionism concerning the Holocaust of World War II.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their ancestors were slaughtered in orchestrated killings that can only be seen as genocide.

Turkey angrily rejects the notion that its Ottoman predecessor was responsible for such a gross violation of human rights.

It admits 300,000 Armenians died when the Ottoman Empire fell apart during World War I. But it but says at least as many Turks did too, as civil strife raged and the Armenians took up arms for independence alongside invading Russian troops.

An association representing the Armenian disapora in Europe, the Brussels-based Euro-Armenian Federation, hailed the French parliamentary vote as a "historic step forward".

Around 400,000 people of Armenian origin are estimated to live in France, the most famous being singer Charles Aznavour, born Chahnour Varinag Aznavourian to immigrant parents.

Turkey has cast the French bill as a restriction on freedom of expression.

It has threatened economic reprisals against France if the bill becomes law, warning that French firms could be excluded from public tenders and a boycott of French goods might be imposed.

The European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, was also unsettled by the draft law.

"Should this law indeed enter into force, it would prohibit the debate and the dialogue which is necessary for reconciliation on this issue," said Krisztina Nagy, the commission's spokeswoman on enlargement.

"It is very important to see that there is an opening in Turkey to conduct debate on that issue," she said, adding that the French bill, if it became law, "could have a negative affect on that debate".
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