France sparks uproar with genocide bill

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French politicians are galloping into diplomatic quicksand with a proposal to imprison anyone who publicly denies that the Turkish massacre of Armenians a century ago constituted genocide. The draft law, to be debated by the National Assembly today, was submitted by the opposition Socialist Party and has strong support among those on the political right who hope to derail Turkey's candidacy for European Union membership.

Members of France's 400,000-strong Armenian diaspora, whose votes are important to all sides in next spring's presidential election, have lobbied for years to criminalize negating their genocide, just as it is a crime in France to deny the Holocaust. But the proposed law, which would also require the French Senate's approval, has caused an uproar outside France and discomfort in some unexpected quarters.

Turkey has warned that French companies will be barred from bidding on billions of dollars worth of government contracts if the law is approved. The Armenian government has kept silent on the proposal, saying its goal is to secure recognition of the genocide by Turkey. The European Union's enlargement commissioner has pleaded with the French to abandon the bill, saying it would only undermine those Turks and Armenians promoting a dialogue over their conflicting versions of history.

More surprising has been the reaction of Armenian community leaders inside Turkey who have been fighting for greater freedom of speech at home.

They said France would do more harm than good by outlawing the expression of unpopular views.

"I have been tried in Turkey for saying the Armenian genocide exists, and I have talked about how wrong this is," said Hrant Dink, the editor of an Armenian-language newspaper in Istanbul, in an interview with CNN-Turk. "But if this bill becomes law, I will be one of the first to head to France and break the law. Then we can watch Turkey and the French government race to see which will throw me in jail first."

The story of the expulsion of Armenians from the towns and villages of what is now southern Turkey has long stirred fierce passions and bitter political battles.

More than one million Armenians died by execution, starvation and disease between 1895 and 1915, when the Ottoman empire launched a campaign to rid itself of ethnic groups, such as the Armenians and the Greeks, that were seen as agents of enemies including Russia and Greece.

The descendants of those who survived the campaigns have managed, over the past few decades, to convince about 20 countries, including France and Canada, to officially categorize the events as genocide.

Turkey, the successor to the Ottomans and independent since 1921, has long argued that massacres occurred on both sides and denied that the bloody expulsion of Armenians amounted to systematic killing or genocide. The government recently announced that its own historians have established that 523,000 Turks were killed by Armenians in Turkey from 1910 to 1922.

Under the three-year-old government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once was jailed for a pro-Islamic speech that displeased government authorities, Turkey has grown more tolerant of books, movies and academic discussions that shine a spotlight on the expulsions and massacres of the early 20th century.

But nationalist groups have continued to bring lawsuits against writers and journalists, such as Mr. Dink, who refer to the massacres, arguing they insult the Turkish nation. The trials in turn provide ammunition for those opposed to Turkey's membership in the European Union.

The EU has not made recognition of the Armenian genocide a condition for Turkey to join the union. But with popular opinion across Europe skeptical about accepting Muslim Turkey into the EU fold, the genocide issue has been seized upon by politicians as justification for denying it membership.

During a visit to Armenia last month, French President Jacques Chirac became the latest European leader to insist that Turkey could never join the EU until it agreed that Armenians were the victims of genocide.

But the proposed law to criminalize genocide denial has raised different issues and left Mr. Chirac's right-wing coalition in disarray. The main right-wing party has said it would boycott the debate, although individual assembly members could vote as they liked.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading candidate for the party's presidential nomination, has endorsed the proposed law in principle but not stated whether he will vote for it.

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