On 12 October 2006 the French lower house of Parliament approved a bill making it a criminal offence to deny the Armenian ‘genocide’ in which, it is alleged, between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Turkish authorities in 1915.
The immediate consequence of the move has been a severe deterioration in Franco-Turkish relations. The ‘genocide’ has long been a source of animosity between Turkey and Armenia but why has France become involved in a spat that dates back almost a hundred years and on which not even historians can agree? Is history on the side of the French? In short, historians are divided as to whether an Armenian genocide did occur in 1915. It is widely accepted, among both the academic community and within Turkish society, that a great many Armenians died in 1915. Turkey argues, however, that the Ottoman Empire was in a state of internal conflict, irregular operations by Armenians and Muslim Turks against the state were widespread and significant numbers of people from various communities were killed in the fighting.
In April 2005, Tayyip Erdogan approached the Armenian Government to propose a joint investigation into the events of 1915, but Armenia rejected the offer of a bilateral commission. Turkish historians, along with the General Staff, have since released Armenian Activities in the Archive Documents, 1914-1918, Volume III from the Ottoman archives, documenting terrorist activities by Armenian groups including the murder of Turkish civilians. So while historical evidence appears neither clear-cut nor conclusive, why have French politicians taken such a stark position on the matter?
French political considerations
The Armenian ‘genocide’ denial bill was proposed by the Socialists, but received support from both sides of the political divide and with elections in France fast approaching the measure must be considered in this context. France is home to the largest Armenian minority in Western Europe – numbering approximately 500,000 – and about 100 sizeable companies are French-Armenian endeavours with a combined value of $200-250 million. The RPR is rumoured to receive significant levels of party funding from the French Armenian community and all parties are competing for Armenian votes – hence the support from across the political spectrum. Added to this is the popular opposition within France to future Turkish membership of the EU. Perceived as an anti-Turkish measure, parties no doubt hope that their support for an Armenian ‘genocide’ denial law will garner support among the wider French population.
For his part, President Chirac has already suggested that Turkish recognition of the Armenian ‘genocide’ should be a pre-condition of Turkey’s accession to the EU. But while French political parties might gain short-term domestic political advantage by supporting the legislation, there are serious negative implications for the Franco-Turkish relationship that are likely to endure.
The Turkish reaction
Turkish popular opposition to the French Bill has been enormous, many Turks regard the move as a national insult and huge street protests have been held. The idea of a boycott of French goods has been widely discussed, though politicians have not, as yet, given their support. Trade with France is likely to suffer to some degree, however, and with 542 French firms in Turkey, France -- responsible for 5-6 per cent of Turkey’s foreign trade and the value of French imports to Turkey standing at about $5.8 million per year, the effects will be felt in France. Of course, any economic fallout will also be felt in Turkey but, with Turks who wish to speak their mind in France facing potential imprisonment, the issue has become a question of national pride for the country. The Armenian ‘genocide’ denial bill may bring French politicians rewards in the coming elections but Turks will not quickly forget what they regard as an insulting and anti-Turkish measure.