Armenia on Thursday strongly welcomed the passage by France's lower house of parliament of a landmark bill that makes it a crime to deny Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War One.
The National Assembly approved the bill by 106 votes to 19 earlier in the day over the French government’s objections, provoking anger in Turkey and raising fresh doubts about the success of its efforts to secure European Union membership.
“Today’s approval of the bill by the French National Assembly is a natural continuation of France’s principled and consistent defense of human and historic rights and values,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said in a statement.
“This decision is also a natural reaction to the intensive, aggressive and official denialism of the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish state,” added Oskanian. “They have undertaken a premeditated, planned assault on the truth.”
The statement was echoed by an association representing the Armenian Diaspora in France and other European nations. "We welcome with emotion this historic step forward through which, once again, France points the way down the path of progress, humanity and dignity," Hilda Tchoboian, president of the Brussels-based Euro-Armenian Federation said in a statement.
"The hydra of denial is a tumor on freedom of expression and a threat to public order that must be eradicated," she went on, thanking all the "political personalities who joined together in this struggle".
The bill might never become law because it still needs to be ratified by the upper house Senate and president, but French firms fear they will suffer an immediate backlash in Turkey. The legislation establishes a one-year prison term and 45,000 euro ($56,570) fine for anyone denying the genocide -- the same sanction as for denying the Nazi genocide of Jews.
"Does a genocide committed in World War One have less value than a genocide committed in World War Two? Obviously not," Philippe Pomezec, a parliamentarian with the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), said during the debate.
The French government did not support the motion and promised on Thursday to oppose it when it gets to the Senate, but Turkey said the damage has already been done. "French-Turkish relations ... have been dealt a severe blow today as a result of the irresponsible false claims of French politicians who do not see the political consequences of their actions," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Turkish analysts say more is at stake than just bilateral ties, arguing that the vote will encourage Turkish nationalists and undermine pro-EU liberals by exposing the depth of anti-Turkey feelings in a founding member of the European Union. "It is the intention of those French politicians who backed this bill to antagonize Turkey, to push it to the limit and force it to throw in the towel," said Cengiz Candar, an EU expert at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.
Some 60 protestors carried a black wreath down Istanbul's main commercial street on Thursday and laid it in front of the French consulate.
The European Commission, meanwhile, warned France that its bill could hinder efforts to end decades of dispute over the killings and noted that criteria for talks on Turkey's possible EU entry do not include recognition of the Armenian killings as genocide. "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, spokeswoman on enlargement for the European Union's executive arm.
Oskanian insisted, however, the French parliament’s decision to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide is “understandable.” “What we don’t understand is the Turkish government’s instigation of extremist public reactions, especially while Turkey itself has a law that does exactly the same thing and punishes those who even use the term genocide or venture to discuss those events,” he said.
The Turkish reaction to the French vote was also criticized by EU member Greece that too has had historically strained ties with Turkey. "Threats or insinuations, and the virulent tone of public statements do not befit a country on the road to joining the European Union," foreign ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos told a news briefing.
France is believed to be home to the largest Armenian community in western Europe, with up to half a million people of Armenian descent living there. They make up a powerful political lobby which cannot be overlooked just seven months ahead of a presidential election. However, some Turks think French politicians have a broader agenda and are using the bill to try to block Ankara's EU bid.
Most French people oppose Turkey joining the 25-nation bloc and fear over its potential membership was one of the reasons why France voted last year to reject the EU constitution. Anti-Turkish feeling was palpable as French lawmakers left
parliament on Thursday.
Influential UMP politician Patrick Devedjian, himself of Armenian descent, said Muslim Turkey was not a democratic country and did not deserve EU membership. "It is like they are asking to enter a club but have already smashed its windows," he told Reuters television.
An hour after the vote, Turkey's best-known novelist, Orhan Pamuk, won the Nobel prize for Literature. Pamuk recently went on trial for insulting "Turkishness" after telling a Swiss newspaper nobody in Turkey dared mention the Armenian massacres. The court eventually dropped charges.
French businesses fear trade will suffer because of the row, with French exports to Turkey worth 4.66 billion euros in 2005. "Time will show. But I cannot say it will not have any consequences," Turkish Economics Minister Ali Babacan told reporters in Brussels. Asked about the threat of a boycott to French goods, he said: "As the government of Turkey, we are not encouraging something like that. But this is the people's decision."