by Clare Byrne

Deutsche Presse-Agentur
Feb 28 2012

Feb. 28--PARIS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday ordered
his government to return to the drawing board after the country's
top constitutional authority struck down a controversial bill banning
the denial of the Armenian genocide, in a decision welcomed by Turkey.

On January 23, the French parliament adopted a bill making it a crime
to deny genocides recognized by France.

The bill had sparked a major rift with Turkey because the only other
event France officially recognizes as genocide, beside the Holocaust
of Jews during World War II, is the killings of hundreds of thousands
of Armenians in eastern Turkey during World War I.

"By opting to protect the concept of universal human rights the
French Constitutional Court has decided in accordance with what
everyone believes to be European morals," Turkish Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted as saying by the Anatolian news agency.

We congratulate the court for its decision," Davutogly said.

The bill, which was put forward by Sarkozy's party, would have punished
people who deny the killings were genocide with a year's imprisonment
and 45,000 euros (57,000 dollars) in fines.

But the nine-member Constitutional Council, which includes former
presidents Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing as members,
pulled the bill up short, saying it represented an "unconstitutional
breach of the practice of freedom of expression."

The council had been asked to vet the bill by a group of
parliamentarians who said that, while they did not dispute the
existence of the Armenian genocide, they felt the text violated some
basic freedoms.

Sarkozy in a statement said he had "taken note" of the decision and
had ordered the government to draw up a new bill that would take the
Consitutional Council's ruling into account.

Sarkozy also said he would meet soon with members of France's Armenian

Turkey had accused Sarkozy of pandering to the small but influential
Armenian community in order to win votes in this year's presidential
election. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the
bill as "racist" and suspended bilateral programmes.

A spokesman for the Turkish embassy in Paris welcomed the
Constitutional Council's decision, saying it showed that French
institutions could be counted on to uphold freedom of expression.

"It's good news," spokesman Engin Solakoglu told dpa while adding:
"The French executive went against Franco-Turkish interests. We won't
forget that."

Armenians say around 1.5 million people were either killed or died
during forced deportations in Ottoman-controlled eastern Turkey in
1915. France is one of several countries to declare the slaughter
constituted genocide.

Turkey admits hundreds of thousands of people were killed but rejects
the genocide label, arguing there was no systematic policy to destroy
the Armenian community.