France defers Armenian issue

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There were cries of protest from left- and right-wing benches when Jean-Louis Debré, the speaker of the French National Assembly, suspended a stormy debate on the Armenian genocide yesterday. Armenian visitors in the public gallery chanted in unison: "Vote! Vote! Vote!" as gendarmes removed them.

When the socialist parliamentary group filed the proposed law last month, few imagined it would be so divisive. The law is an addendum to that of January 2001, which publicly recognised the Armenian genocide of 1915. The new law, which may now never come to a vote, would make denying the Armenian Holocaust an offence punishable by up to one year's imprisonment and a fine of EUR 45,000.

After the national assembly voted the 2001 law, Turkey cancelled contracts with the French groups Thomson, Alcatel and Bouygues. Some French products were boycotted, and taxi-drivers in Istanbul and Ankara refused to take French passengers.

This time the French and Turkish governments did their utmost to prevent the law passing. President Jacques Chirac appealed for a "spirit of responsibility" on this "sensitive question". The French ministry of trade circulated a list of French contracts with Turkey - worth $4.7 billion (EUR 3.7 billion) last year.

The French nuclear power company Areva hopes to build Turkey's first reactors soon, and the French minister for foreign trade will visit Turkey with the heads of 40 companies on June 14th.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened trade sanctions if the law passed, while the Turkish foreign minister warned of "irreparable damage" to relations.

"Dear colleagues, we resisted the United States during the Iraq crisis," the right-wing UMP deputy Roland Blum said. "Surely we can stand up to the Turks!" His outburst was widely applauded.

Western historians are nearly unanimous in recognising that, as the centre-right UDF deputy François Rochebloine recounted yesterday: "From April 1915, the Young Turk government unleashed the horrible process of the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, through organised massacres . . . which prefigured the Jewish Holocaust two decades later." French deputies who followed their heads - and pocketbooks - opposed the law. Those who followed their hearts supported it. The main parties splintered, and there was plenty of hypocrisy to go around. The right dragged out debates on two other laws, to eat up the socialists' time slot before the Armenian debate.

French opponents of the law do not deny the Armenian genocide happened. But many were burned by a 2005 law praising the alleged benefits of colonialism, which had to be rescinded due to public outrage.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the leader of the socialist parliamentary group, who accused the right of obstruction, is known to be at best a reluctant supporter of the law, because he wants historians - not politicians - to judge history. Mr Ayrault and fellow group presidents must now decide whether to continue the Armenian debate during the next socialist slot in November.

In the meantime, there is bitter disappointment among many parliamentarians, not to mention the Armenians who demonstrated outside the assembly yesterday.

"They gave [ the law] a third class funeral," said Patrick Devedjian, a UMP deputy of Armenian origin. He alluded to the defacing of memorials to the Armenian Holocaust this spring. "Memorials abroad are the only sepulchres we have, so it felt like a desecration to Armenians," he said.

Mr Devedjian corrected the foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, when he alluded to "the memory of massacres committed in 1915", emphasising, "The genocide, Monsieur le Ministre".

"The Armenian cause is just," Mr Douste-Blazy continued. "It must be defended and respected. But national representatives must take account of the interest of France . . . The text submitted to you would be considered, like it or not, as a hostile act by the vast majority of Turkish people."

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