Commentary: Genocide Bill Makes Waves in France and Beyond


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Criminalizing the Genocide in France has touched off a political debate with international repercussions. The passage of the bill on December 22 in the French National Assembly has angered Turkish leaders, who are threatening France with a number of measures and decrying the “irreparable damage” to Franco-Turkish relations, should the bill be ratified by the French Senate before end of January, as predicted.

In the past, Ankara used to recall its ambassador for a period and gradually forget its threats of retaliation. This time around, it does not seem to be business as usual. Indeed the Turkish Ambassador to France Tahsin Burcuoglu has returned to Paris after consultations in Ankara and he has been assigned to lead the political campaign against the passage of the bill in the French Senate.

Instead of keeping the ambassador out of France, Turkey has threatened to discontinue discussions with Paris on the developments in Syria.

As has become common knowledge by now, Washington has begun using surrogates in the Middle East to topple regimes hostile to Israel, as was the case in Libya, rather than sacrificing 4,500 of its own military, as it happened in Iraq.

Syria is the next target in line, which compels cooperation between Paris and Ankara. Turkey is also threatening to revise its military and economic relations with France. France is Turkey’s fifth largest export market and sixth largest importer with bilateral trade worth $14 billion in 2011 and growing. France is also a contender to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey, which also has become a political hot potato in the current atmosphere of tension.

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In the meantime, some developments have emerged inside and outside of France, which may have a bearing on the Senate vote.

One development is the opposition party’s position on the issue; indeed, the passage of the Genocide bill had become an election campaign issue for President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the Socialist candidate for the presidency, Francois Holland, stole the wind out of Sarkozy’s sail, when he announced that he would also support the Genocide bill.

This announcement rendered the issue as a double-edged sword; on the one hand, the bill gains bi-partisan support, especially when the Socialists have a majority in the Senate; on the other hand, it loses its political value, allowing Armenians to vote for either candidate.

Another development was a misstep by France’s Prime Minister Alain Juppé in Ankara.

Traditionally, France has a policy of preventative action. We should remember the day when the late President Francois Mitterrand walked in unannounced into an Armenian gathering to dispense his unbound love for the Armenian people and pledge his support for Genocide recognition. That was just on the eve of the French Court’s announcement of its verdict on some Armenian youth arrested for political violence in France. Only later did it dawn on the Armenians that it was a measure to soften the blow.

Similarly, a preventive strike was taken by the French prime minister, after Mr. Sarkozy threw “his bombshell” in Yerevan, warning Ankara to take steps before the end of the year, otherwise France was to implement its own policy. France needed some damage control before the December 22 vote. Thus Mr. Juppé headed for Ankara, where he fell into the Turkish trap by espousing one of Ankara’s hollow, favorite arguments about the Genocide issue. To appease angered Turks, he offered to host a group of representatives from both sides “to study” the issue, as if anything else was left to study, after the recognition of the Genocide by 20 nations, and after the numerous statements by internationally-recognized Genocide scholars.

Turkish leaders know that they are trying to dupe the international community, by trying “to leave history to the historians,” while emphatically maintaining that “there was no Genocide in Turkish history.”

When they know the outcome of a study, calling an “impartial committee of scholars” is tantamount to political charade. Also, which scholar will dare to pronounce the word “genocide” when article 301 is in the Turkish penal code and when publisher Recep Zarakolu is in prison, exactly for speaking out as an “impartial scholar.”

Mr. Juppé’s misstep in Turkey touched off a firestorm in the French-Armenian community and it did not make a dent on the Turkish resolve to fight the issue.

Another political storm is brewing across the Mediterranean in Algeria. When the Turkish prime minister accused France of committing “genocide” against Algerians during the colonial war, that country’s prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, responded that “nobody has the right to make the blood of Algerians their business.” This gave the opportunity for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to play its Islamic card. While maintaining a dignified posture, Erdogan put to action the Islamist parties in Algeria to fight their own prime minister and the French Parliament. The first party to react was Algeria’s Social Movement For Peace (MSP), a large party aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Bougerra Sultani, backed the Turkish Premier Erdogan.

Another Algerian opposition party, Ennahda, known as the Islamic Renaissance Movement, also reacted negatively to the prime minister’s statement. It looks like the debate sparked a political crisis in that country, since even Ouyahia’s coalition partners joined the barrage of criticism.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have been skillfully using the Islamic card, especially in the annual convocations of the Islamic conference, where resolutions are adopted routinely on the issue of Karabagh conflict and Armenia is always condemned.

While Turkey shows its Western face to be admitted to the European Union, it remains a power broker in the Islamic world, where nuanced politics hardly make any sense, since everything is black and white; suffice it to taint any issue as a religious conflict, Islamic nations rally around it in defense.

In all this turmoil, pitting parties and countries against each other, a small voice has also been heard in the Istanbul patriarchate. Turks push forward the hostage Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. On behalf of the Patriarchate Archbishop Aram Ateshian has stated that the problem should be addressed within Turkey, and Armenians are “in favor of solving our problems with our [Turkish] state,” adding that “second hands, arms and opinions should not interfere with the issue.”

Of course nothing else could be expected from the poor cleric, who himself is a political pawn. He certainly cannot speak on behalf of all Armenians, because the Genocide and the murder of 1.5 million Armenian souls is not a parochial issue in an Istanbul neighborhood. The Turkish government supported Ateshian’s candidacy to succeed Archbishop Mesrob Mutafian, who was used and abused by the Turkish state for its political ends and now he is rendered a shadow of his former self. The state support for Ateshian is paying its political dividends today.

While we understand the archbishop’s predicament, a non-statement on the issue would have been much more powerful. One of his predecessors, His Beatitude Archbishop Shnork Kalousdian, kept a low profile during the reign of the harshest political dictatorship in Turkey thus did not provide anti-Armenian ammunition to the Turkish state to be used against the world Armenian community.

While denying the right to Archbishop Ateshian to speak on behalf of all Armenians, we understand that any responsible community leader has to bear in mind that the Turkish state can unleash a September 6 massacre anytime.

Returning to the French Senate vote, it looks like the bill has gained momentum, but nothing is certain until it is done. The French have treated Armenians in a cavalier manner many times in history. Sarkozy himself is known to turn against his closest allies, driven by political expediency. We hope this time around, political expediency moves him in the right direction.


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