Center for Research on Globalization, Canada
Dec 31 2011

French Genocide Bill Provokes Uproar, Sparks Debate: Turkish
Overreaction May Backfire

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

The bill voted up on December 22 by the French parliament (Assemblee
Nationale), which would make denial of genocide (including the 1915
genocide against the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey) a crime, has
provoked strong reactions from the Turkish government and sparked a
debate among Turks and Armenians worldwide. The bill, which must still
be debated by the senate, would penalize anyone denying the genocide
with up to one year in prison and a 45,000 fine. (1)

The response from Ankara was swift and furious. Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan announced that he had recalled his ambassador from France,
frozen all military cooperation with France, and suspended economic
and political meetings. (2) In addition, Turkish President Abdullah
Gul urged that France withdraw from the Minsk Group, on grounds it
could no longer claim to be impartial in the Nagorno-Karabach dispute.

There were not a few ironies to the development. First, Turkish
opponents to the bill claimed it would criminalize free speech and
hamper historical research - yet, according to Turkey's penal code
Article 301, any mention of the Armenian genocide, in so many words,
is deemed an offense and is punishable -- so much for free speech and
historical research. Over the past months, scores of Turkish
intellectuals, journalists, and civil society leaders have been jailed
on allegations of affiliation with terrorist organizations because
they have spoken out regarding Kurdish civil rights and the Armenian
issue. For years writers who addressed the Armenian case, even those
who judiciously avoided using the proper term genocide, have been
jailed, mishandled, and, in the case of Hrant Dink, murdered. A
further irony lies in Erdogan's charge that France has no right to
launch such accusations when it was itself guilty of genocide against
Algerians in the independence war. As many journalists noted, this was
a back-handed admission of wrongdoing on the part of the Ottoman

Finally, criticism from Ankara pointed out that French President
Nicolas Sarkozy, whose UMP party presented the bill, was doing so
because it was speculating on winning support from the estimated half
million Armenian voters in France in the next elections. No irony
here: it is quite obvious that Sarkozy is using the Armenian issue as
a political football. This is, sadly, not the first time that the
genocide issue has been cynically exploited. Whenever Washington would
get upset with some foreign policy initiative coming out of Ankara,
the knee-jerk reaction would be to threaten to use the `g-word' at the
White House. Recently, the Israeli Knesset has brought up discussion
of the Armenian genocide, as a not-so-subtle response to Turkey's
having put bilateral relations on ice. Such exploitation of mass
murder is morally repugnant and only adds to the offense against the
memory of those who perished in 1915-1917.

That said, there are a couple of intriguing questions provoked by the
French legislators' move worth mention. First: is the vote truly
representative of the French parliament's viewpoint? According to
French press reports, the bill passed by a `large majority of the
fifty or so parliamentarians present,' and `about half a dozen voted
against it.' Out of a total of 577 members of parliament, this does
not strike me as constituting an overwhelming mandate. But numbers
aside, is it in principle the prerogative of any elected parliamentary
body to determine by vote whether or not genocide has been committed?
To most honest intellectuals, the Armenian genocide is a historical
fact documented through primary sources on various sides, including
American, Danish, German, as well as Armenian and Turkish. Secondly,
can one legislate morality, by criminalizing denial of historical
facts? If it becomes illegal to deny the genocide, does that make its
affirmation somehow `more true?' Does that mean that those who deny it
will, under threat of punishment, alter their views? Is it not wiser
to thrash out the issues of the controversy, as prominent genocide
historians continue to do, in the patient effort to convince the
doubting Thomases or ideological denialists that what they
hysterically reject did in fact occur?

This leads to the real point, and the one occupying center stage in
the debate inside Turkey, a debate ironically nourished in part by the
French vote. The real point is Turkish recognition of what occurred in
1915. Why cannot the Turkish establishment acknowledge the historical
record, relieve itself and its people of the burden of collective
guilt, apologize to the descendants of the victims, and work towards
reconciliation? Energized by the debate about the French vote, it
appears that a growing number of individuals and civil society
organizations are accelerating their efforts to arrive at just such a
goal. The Human Rights Association Istanbul Branch, put out a press
release on December 22, entitled, `Let's Raise Our Voice Against
Denial, Not the French Parliament.' (4) In their view, denial of a
crime against humanity, like genocide, could not be considered a
violation of freedom of expression. On those grounds, they called on
intellectuals and others to end their campaigns against the French
parliament and instead `work for the recognition of the Armenian
genocide, the Assyrian genocide and the ethnic cleansing of Greeks by
the state and the society as a whole.'

On December 24, the DSIP (Revolutionary Socialist Workers' Party) put
out a press release arguing along similar lines, and urged recognition
of the genocide including all relevant legal, cultural, and political

A day earlier, Today's Zaman carried an article by Ahsan Yilmaz who
criticized the Erdogan government reaction as exaggerated and went on
to suggest that the proper way to deal with the problem would be to
seek `normalization vis--vis 1915.' Citing the official Turkish
version of events, according to which `several hundred thousand
Armenians were either massacred or died because of the terrible
conditions during their forced deportation,' he put forward the view
that the state had a duty to protect these citizens and had failed to
do so. `Turkey has to apologize, he concluded, `at least for its
inability to protect them. Then, it must invite Armenians abroad to
come and get their inheritance in Turkey. Thirdly, Turkey must erect
some monuments and build museums for these massacred, great people who
had lived in these lands for thousands of years but faced extinction
because of some secular-nationalist Committee of Union and Progress
(CUP) dictators' faulty, to say the least, decisions and actions.'

Although the author compromises with the official Turkish propaganda
line, carefully side-stepping any reference to the documented intent
to annihilate the Armenian people, what is noteworthy in his article
is his insistence that Turkey must somehow finally deal with its past.
That such an article could appear in a leading English-language
Turkish publication indicates the breadth of the debate now raging in
Turkey. The same Zaman carried a similar piece days later by Sahin
Alpay, who saw the crux of the issue in the fact that, despite
controversy over the term `genocide,' Armenians were killed through
forced deportations, during which even denialists estimated that up to
700,000 died. He concludes with a call for an official apology and
cites a retired Turkish Ambassador, Volkan Vural, who said: `What
happened in history is unworthy of the Republic of Turkey. If I were
in charge, I would also apologize. A state like ours has to do this.
The state must tell the deported Armenians and to Greeks forced to
leave the country.... `I am extending citizenship to you and to your
descendants.' The Armenian problem can be solved not by historians but
by politicians. Historical facts are well known.'

With all their limitations, what these articles illustrate is an
unprecedented discussion process unfolding in Turkey. Robert Fisk, a
seasoned journalist for the Independent, provided further insight into
it in a piece entitled, `Turkey's long road to reconciliation'
published on December 25. (5) He was reporting on a promotional tour
in Turkey that he had just completed to push the Turkish translation
of his book, The Great War for Civilisation. He had conducted a
whopping 21 interviews with Turkish TV and press to introduce his
book. And the book, he writes, contains a chapter on 1915 entitled,
`The First Genocide,' - yes, `genocide' even in the Turkish
translation -- despite Article 301. Fisk said that that most
journalists did not even question his account, for the simple reason
that, although officialdom denies it, `[f]or hundreds of thousands of
Turks, the Armenian genocide is now a fact of history.' How so? he
asks rhetorically. And he explains that it is because `[t]housands of
Turks are digging into their own family histories. Why, they are
asking, did they have Armenian grandmothers and great-grandmothers?'

Fisk poses the obvious question: why can't the Turks face up to this
history as the Germans dealt with the Holocaust? He referred to
Erdogan's admission just a few weeks earlier of the massacres of
thousands of Kurds, adding that Zaman's coverage of that event had
queried whether or not this might be a prelude to acknowledgement of
the Armenian genocide. Again, Fisk pointed out, the phrase used by
Zaman was not `alleged genocide' but `genocide.' Such ostensibly minor
details might be considered nitpicking, but they are actually loaded
with significance, and may indeed presage some positive developments.

Looking at such events as part of a long but steady process of
questioning inside Turkey, it appears that the French bill, quite
irrespective of its merits or demerits, may have given a healthy nudge
to that process.


1. For the vote and the text see,,

2. See,




6. The phenomenon of Turkish citizens` discovering their Armenian
ethnic roots going back to the 1915 genocide first broke through
public silence when Fetiye Cetin published her book, My Grandmother in
2004. Since then numerous biographical studies have appeared in Turkey
as personal memoirs or institutional studies documenting the fact that
tens if not hundreds of thousands of Armenian chidren, especially
girls, were spared death and forcefully assimilated as concubines,
slaves, or wives of Turks. Their offspring and their descendants now
bear witness to this fact. But how to interpret this unique
occurrence? On the one hand, it shows that, although some Turks sought
to exploit the Armenian females, others sought to save the young girls
out of human compassion. On the other hand, it demonstrates a very
fundamental principle: truth will prevail. If the thousands of
Armenians slaughtered in the genocide can not come back and testify
before a court of law as to what happened, their grandchildren, born
of mixed marriages with Turks, can. They need not go to court. Their
mere existence as Turkish citizens of Armenian descent constitutes the
most damning proof of what happened almost 100 years ago. For a
discussion of the implications of this phenomenon in Turkey today,

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is a frequent contributor to Global Research.

From: Baghdasarian