Nearly 100 years have elapsed since the killing of thousands of Armenians, but the wounds seem far from healed.
The French parliament is to vote on a bill on Thursday making it illegal to deny that the 1915 killing of Armenians during World War I was genocide. The bill, which is expected to pass, provides for a one-year prison term and a fine of $58,000 (45,000 euros) to anyone who publicly denies it was genocide.
The vote in the French National Assembly has stirred a diplomatic frenzy and French and Turkish politicians are jumping into the fray.
“This proposed law targets and is hostile to the Republic of Turkey, the Turkish nation and the Turkish community living in France,” Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister wrote in a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Reuters reports.
During a Saturday news conference, Mr. Erdogan suggested that France ought to investigate her own role and actions in colonial Africa, including Rwanda.
Turkey maintains that the proposed bill is a political ploy by Sarkozy's political party to win the votes of 500,000 Armenians in France ahead of next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Sarkozy has also been an outspoken opponent of Turkey desire to join the European Union.
Jean Leonetti, the European Affairs Minister of France, dismisses such allegations and says that opposition Socialists will endorse the bill as well. “It has been nearly 100 years since the Armenian genocide took place, those responsible are dead, it is simply a matter of recognizing a fact of history,” he told Radio Classique, The Telegraph in London reports.
Ersin Onulduran, chairman of the department of international relations at Ankara University, told Today's Zaman, a Turkish daily, that “only historians and archival experts should pass judgment on the merits of historical events.”
Although there is little consensus, Armenians say that about 1.5 million people were killed during the mass deportations of 1915-16.
The Turkish government acknowledges the death of many Armenians, yet, it denies that Ottoman forces deliberately exterminated them. Turkey considers the numbers as inflated and says that Turks were also killed due to the upheaval that followed the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.
Many Turks, disappointed and disillusioned by European delays over entry into the EU, are now embracing a more assertive rhetoric.
“I want to state clearly that such steps will have grave consequences for future relations between Turkey and France in political, economic, cultural and all areas,” Erdogan said according to Reuters. While Turkey is threatening to boycott French products if the bill passes, it has not ruled out also imposing trade sanctions.
So far this year, bilateral trade between Turkey and France is estimated at more than $13.5 billion. About 1,000 French companies operate in Turkey.
"We have to remember international rules and with regard to Turkey it's a member of the WTO (World Trade Organization) and is linked to the European Union by a customs union and these two commitments mean a non-discriminatory policy towards all companies within the European Union," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, Reuters reports.
In 2006, a similar bill was introduced and approved by the French National Assembly but was later dropped by the Senate. In France, any legislative initiative requires the endorsement of both parliament and the Senate to be enacted.