Nazlan Ertan

The New Anatolian, Turkey
May 2 2006

Turkey and France have had a long history of intense and turbulent
relations for the last six centuries. This has, not surprisingly,
included times of cooperation, strategic balancing, intense trade and
cultural exchange and war. There have been moments, such as on the eve
and in the wake of the 1997 Luxembourg summit of the European Council,
that Turkey regarded France as one of its key partners in its drive
towards the European Union. There have been others, as we've heard
lately, before Sept 3, 2005, when France appeared to be an obstacle
to Turkey's EU ambitions, both in terms of accession and Cyprus.

For a few months, Turkey has been living through a French spring in
the field of culture, but alas not in politics.

While art lovers are enjoying performances in Ankara, Istanbul and
around Turkey by French masters of their art, diplomatic and political
circles are deeply pensive about the possible damage that would be
inflicted on relations if France passes a new bill on the Armenian
"genocide" this month.

The French socialists will almost certainly bring a new bill proposing
penalties to those who question the so-called Armenian genocide
to the floor of the French National Assembly this month during a
"window session."

Armenians in France have already welcomed the law, which will come
to the floor for debate on May 18, one of the limited times when the
opposition is allowed to propose laws.

If accepted then it would be a crime -- punishable for up to five
years in prison -- to "deny that the Armenian genocide" took place.

This will be the second time that a debate in the French Parliament
on the Armenian "genocide" has poisoned Turco-French ties. The French
Parliament adopted a controversial law in 2001, which says, in a single
line, that "France publicly recognizes the Armenian genocide of 1915."

When this law, penned by the Socialist Party (PS), was first discussed
in 1997, there were various proposals: Some groups suggested that
a clause on revisionism be added to the law, while others wanted
to change the date to 1915-1921, when the modern Turkish state was
also established.

Then, after three years of being buried in the Senate, the law was
finally passed and signed by President Jacques Chirac. Both French
diplomatic and political circles quickly verified the law didn't
contain "revisionism."

The text, said Parisian policy-makers, diplomats and academics, was
greatly different from that of the Loi Gayssot, which made denial of
the Holocaust punishable under the law.

The Turks were unpersuaded. Ankara was certain that once this first
law was passed, a negationism clause would follow sooner or later.

Time, it seems, has proved Ankara right.

In the wake of the conflict around monuments that aimed to "honor"
victims of the Armenian genocide claims dedicated in the French
cities of Lyon and Marseille, the fertile atmosphere for that new
law was created.

Many French politicians have judged the graffiti scribbled on the
monument to be a mere act of vandalism, which fed pressure from the
strong and well-organized Armenian lobby on French politicians to
"do something."

I'm reluctant to get into a debate on how and under which conditions
historical revisionism (or "negationism") can be reconciled with
freedom of expression, if at all. To me, any negationism reminds me
of its most famous example in literature, George Orwell's "1984."

Nor will I discuss the differences between what constitutes a
"genocide" and what constitutes a "massacre" or wonder out loud
whether the international tendency to shout "genocide" is a factor
that, in fact, diminishes the gravity of other crimes against humanity.

Looking at the situation between Turkey and France, it seems highly
probable that the law will be passed. Take the existing sympathies in
the country toward the Armenian diaspora, the well-organized Armenian
lobby and its power, and all the negative factors against Turkey. Add
to this the dialogue of the deaf between Ankara and Paris on this
issue. No Turkish diplomat can be sufficiently convincing for the
French audience on the Armenian question, no matter what they say, and,
vice versa, no French diplomat can explain and make Turks "understand"
the French dilemma on the Armenian question. The civil societies of
both countries don't have a sufficiently developed relationship with
each other to be a serious element in the equation.

One hopes, however, that credible and nonpartisan groups on both
sides will come together and discuss the issue in the coming days.

What makes one uneasy is think that French lawmakers will vote for
the new law without fully realizing what it means. They will know,
of course, that opposing it may border on political suicide. Most
will surely think of the Armenian question itself and conclude,
easily and without much of a dilemma of the conscience, that since
France passed a law recognizing genocide five years ago, why not add
another one on revisionism? After all, they might ask, do we want
graffiti on monuments?

Will any of them see the inconsistency when their country's foreign
minister asked Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not to
"overuse" the term genocide in regards to France's former role as a
colonial power in his country? Will he remember remarks uttered by
ex-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who in 2001 rejected a proposal to
investigate French "massacres" in Algeria, saying they should leave
judgements on the issue to historians?

Will the same deputies also think that by passing this law, France
-- which was considered an intellectual and academic capital -- can
no longer play a meaningful role on any Turkish-Armenian platform to
build a relationship? Would the same country be better off supporting
joint academic studies or a "Truth" commission on the same question?

A senior diplomat maintained that Turco-French ties, which have been
intense for centuries, will withstand it, but he added, "I'd be sorry
to see them deteriorate in my time."

Hopefully, he won't be the only one to think that, neither in Ankara
nor in Paris, and particularly not in the National Assembly.