Hollande treads a fine line with genocide law

The French president said he is committed to making the denial of Armenian genocide punishable in law, a declaration that runs the risk of threatening France's "new era" of relations with Turkey.

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Marseille, France // France and Turkey could be heading for a new period of tension after a declaration by the French president that he is committed to making the denial of Armenian genocide punishable in law.

François Hollande moved quickly to reassure a French Armenian group of his intentions after his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, appeared to rule out any attempt to revive a law that was passed by parliament but then held to be unconstitutional.

After meeting his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr Fabius hailed a "new era" in Franco-Turkish relations and said it would be impossible for France to revive the law if the outcome was likely to be the same.

French Armenians are satisfied that the president's commitment to them represents the true French position.

The bill, which was passed by both houses of the French parliament, provided for sentences of up to one year's imprisonment and a €45,000 (Dh202,775) fine for denial of genocides recognised by the state. Since the Holocaust was the subject of existing law, the measure effectively applied to the slaughter of Armenians in the dying stages of the Ottoman Empire.

Varying international studies have put the number of deaths, during and just after the First World War, at between 600,000 and 1,500,000. Modern Turkey indignantly rejects the term "genocide" and retaliated with sanctions against France after the parliamentary votes.

Economic, political and military cooperation was frozen but the sanctions were lifted after the ruling of France's constitutional court that the proposed law breached the French constitution's attachment to freedom of expression.

France is home to an Armenian community of up to 500,000 people, who are part of a worldwide diaspora estimated at more than seven million. Community leaders are highly vocal despite their relatively modest electoral influence and France formally recognised the massacres of nearly a century ago as genocide in 2001 without identifying the perpetrator.

Mr Davutoglu said in an interview with the French newspaper Libération that for a parliament to decide on historical questions "in accusing Turkey of genocide" was unacceptable.

"Turkey is ready to confront all aspects of its history," he said. However, he believed France's new socialist administration would "have the wisdom not to reopen this file".

The election of Mr Hollande, and his party's subsequent success in gaining an absolute majority in the national assembly to add to control of the senate, or upper house, led to an immediate improvement in relations between Paris and Ankara.

Turkey resented the policies of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. This animosity was inspired not only by his support for the genocide bill, which passed its final parliamentary hurdle in January before the constitutional hitch arose, but by his hostility to Turkish membership of the European Union.

Mr Hollande does not favour a French referendum on the issue during his first five-year term. But this is consistent with Ankara's own view of the appropriate timetable.

Mr Davutoglu told Libération he was optimistic, after positive meetings at presidential and ministerial levels, that the "turbulence" and "climate of crisis" of previous years and especially months were artificial.

He said Mr Sarkozy had considered growing Turkish influence in the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe to be at France's expense. "I believe on the contrary that we are not adversaries but allies with obvious synergy," he added.

But any warm glow the Turkish minister may have felt after his meeting with Mr Fabius will have given way to cooler reflection after the president decided to reaffirm his position on the genocide bill.

Mr Hollande telephoned Franck Papazian, the co-president of the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organisations in France (CCAF) following the Fabius-Davutoglu meeting after another of its leaders had denounced the French minister's comment as a "betrayal". The Elysée later confirmed that the president had given a promise to stand by his pre-election commitments.

The CCAF said in a statement: "Francois Hollande has again expressed his willingness to propose a bill to suppress the denial of the Armenian genocide, as he had said during his campaign and even before."

There remains room for manoeuvre. Following the constitutional court judgment, officials are conducting a study on whether action to penalise denial of genocide should take the form of a new law as previously proposed.

It is not clear what alternatives would then be available to reflect wide political support for genocide denial to be an offence. If little scope is found for legislation that does not contradict the constitutional right to free expression, Mr Hollande could be able to argue that his hands are tied - whatever level of anger felt by the Armenian lobby.

It may be at the back of the president's mind that amicable Franco-Turkish relations are mutually important. As well as military cooperation, there is significant trade interest. By 2010 figures, France is Turkey's fifth biggest export market and its sixth largest source of imports, with a surplus of €860 million in France's favour.


* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse