Commentary: Political Activism Pays off in France

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Turkey’s Islamist government is once again gripped in a frenzy of anger, this time regarding the vote in the French parliament criminalizing the denial of the Armenian Genocide. Once again, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resorted to his characteristic vituperation, threatening France with a number of punishing countermeasures.

On the eve of the French parliamentary debate over the Genocide bill, Mr. Erdogan had addressed a personal letter to President Nicolas Sarkozy, cautioning him about the consequences of adopting the Genocide Bill. He indicated particularly the “grave consequences for France in political, economic and cultural relations.” Sarkozy scoffed at the threat and even refused to take a phone call by President Abdullah Gul.

Erdogan’s macho tone has resonance in the domestic political market, and perhaps in some Islamic quarters elsewhere, but in Western countries, it is taken as a deja vu bluff, similar to the threats Turkey hurled at France after the French parliament recognized the Armenian Genocide in 2001.

It is particularly ludicrous for Turkey to threaten France in the realm of culture. One could rightfully ask what kind of culture Turkey can offer to a nation, which has given to the world Corneille, Racine, Descartes, Debussy, Delacroix and other giants of the Enlightenment? Perhaps only Nasreddin Hoja, who has dispensed common sense and practical wisdom to the Turks for many centuries.

And today, one of his anecdotes is a propos to define Turkish attitude in this case.

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The anecdote goes like this: Nasreddin Hoja has borrowed some money from his neighbor and cannot repay the loan at the deadline. He is restless and sleepless all night. Once his wife finds out the cause of Hoja’s worries, she opens the window and hollers to the neighbor: “Hoja will not pay his debt tomorrow” and turning to the husband, she adds: “Now you can go to sleep, and let the neighbor lie sleepless.”

This anecdote exemplifies our case for the Genocide, which has kept us sleepless for more than 95 years. Now it is Turkey’s turn to worry, except that Armenians cannot afford to go to sleep yet. The Armenian Genocide has indeed become an agenda item of national discourse in Turkey, leading to all kinds of interpretations, and, yes, certainly eroding the denialists’ policy in the state.

December 22 was a crucial date as the lower house of the French Parliament voted overwhelmingly to criminalize the denial of the Armenian Genocide, punishable with a one-year prison term, with a fine of 45,000 euros (approximately $60,000).

To become law, the French Senate must also pass the bill. There is a limited time to put the bill on the Senate agenda — between January 10 and February 22 — to be debated some time in March.

The bill was authored and introduced in the parliament by the French Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) right-wing ruling party MP from Bouches-du-Rhone region, Valerie Boyer, whose web page has been hacked by the Turks and has received many death threats, perhaps as an expression of Turkish “culture.”

Meanwhile the leader of the Socialist majority in the French Senate demanded that the government submit the bill to the upper house “as soon as possible.” Therefore, the bill has bipartisan support in the Senate.

In 2006, the parliament had voted to adopt the Armenian Genocide resolution but it was placed on the senate agenda only five years later to be defeated. This time around, that political game cannot be played, because the Genocide bill has become an election issue and presidential run-off election will take place after the March vote, on May 10. And the National Assembly elections will take place on June 10 and 17. Otherwise the bill could fall victim to political expediency and die in its track.

Turkish reaction was as harsh as Erdogan’s rhetoric: “As of now, he said, we are canceling bilateral level political, economic and military activities. Bilateral military cooperation and joint maneuvers are cancelled as of now…Our measures and precautions will come to life stage-by-stage according to France’s position.” He added, “There is no Genocide in our history, we do not accept it.”

Following his prime minister, Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu took up the diatribe, during his consultations with Turkish ambassadors in Ankara. He accused France of “racism” and a “medieval mentality.”

On the other hand, the French Prime Minister Alain Juppé tried to smooth over the deteriorating relations, cautioning his Turkish counterparts against extremism.

Ironically, some of the respected Turkish media echoed the call for caution by the French prime minister; for example Koray Caliskan wrote in Radikal “the happenings in the Ottoman period need to be taken calmly.” Candas Tolga Isik wrote in Haber Turk, quoting Henry Kissinger, “the last one quitting the negotiating table is the winner in diplomacy.” Namik Cinar wrote: “A Turkey which is its own enemy.” The veteran journalist, Ahmet Ali Birent, who is respected beyond Turkey’s borders wrote in Hurriyet: “What we need most today is cold-blooded open policy.”

Erdogan and Davutoglu have accused France and its president with a number of misdeeds, which may easily turn against them:

• That France has committed Genocide in Algeria;

• That Sarkozy is using the Armenian Genocide issue for his electoral purposes;

• That there is no freedom of thought in France and

• Leave history to historians.

Let us take the above accusations one by one. France does not have clean hands in Algeria, but repression of an independence movement in that former colony does not amount to genocide. But even if France had committed a genocide in Algeria, that does not absolve Turkey in committing genocide against Armenians. Accusing France of committing a genocide is not proof that the accuser, Turkey, itself has not committed genocide. Mr. Erdogan pontificated to the French president that if he does not know what his country did in Algeria, let him ask his father.

Sarkozy is certainly using the Armenian Genocide issue for his political ends. He wishes to win over 500,000 Armenians in France during his re-election bid for the country’s presidency.

That statement in itself is a tacit admission by Turkish leaders that indeed politically active community in France is a force to reckon with.

Also, it is the nature of politics to tag the interests of a minority to the political interests of more powerful entities. Why should Sarkozy, and for that matter anyone, take an interest or espouse the cause of a murdered nation, when at the end there is no political dividends for that party.

It is ironic that Erdogan, while keeping Article 301 in the Turkish penal code to harass and punish anyone mentioning the word Genocide, accuses France of restricting freedom of thought.

Turkish groups demonstrating in front of the French parliament against the vote carried signs with the antiquated message that history should be left to the historians, when historians have already given their verdict that, indeed, Turkey committed genocide against Armenians. While the world has already admitted the fact of the Genocide, the Turkish government still tries to obfuscate the facts.

Besides, genocide is not only a historical reality; it is a crime with legal implications, it is the destruction of 1.5 million lives, whose ancestral homeland has been usurped.

The French vote comes to prove that political activism is working and yielding results albeit 95 years later.

The vote also has come to awaken the conscience of many Turks, who call for placing the issue on their domestic political agenda.

One of the unintended consequences of this national debate has been to awaken also the dormant majority of Armenians or half-Armenians, who are gradually reverting back to Christianity and their Armenian identity.

It was an interesting development that the US State Department did not issue one of the run-of-the-mill statements about the French vote. Indeed the spokesperson at Foggy Bottom Mark Toner when asked about the issue, in a press conference, stated: “We have already expressed our position on the issue and we have not changed it. We continue to support the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. We wish good relations also between Turkey and France and we hope they can overcome the current misunderstandings.”

The only cautious party in this new development is the Armenian leadership in Turkey. The press also echoes that sentiment, which is understandable, because when they take up a taboo from the past, an entire history comes fore.

Indeed, Turkey has relapsed into its medieval behavior every time a progressive political advance has been achieved. Armenian writers remember the era of “property tax,” September 6 atrocities, Gen. Kenan Evren’s gallows and other instances of repression, while signing an article.

For example, the Agos editor has found the French vote detrimental to the Armenian community.

Etyen Mahçupyan, writing in Zaman, speaks from both sides of his mouth. “The republican era [in Turkey] sought to make sure that the people remain ignorant about the Armenian issue, and it was successful in this attempt. In such an environment, there was no other way for the Armenian Diaspora but to rely on external political supporters.” Then he flips his position in the conclusion of his article by writing, “In conclusion, the bill adopted by the French parliament and other similar initiatives will do nothing good to Armenian and Turks.”

Mr. Mahçupyan had certainly Hrant Dink’s murder on his mind in taking the issue cautiously.

The French vote is one more stage in the international political scene to tighten the noose around the neck of the denialist Turkish government.

Kudos are due to the French-Armenian community for its success in its political activism.

As to the French government, it is a partial retribution against its 1921 betrayal in Cilicia, causing many deaths and loss of ancestral Armenian homeland.

 

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