French Senate passes genocide denial bill

France's Senate votes to make it a crime to deny that the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago constituted a genocide, risking more sanctions from Turkey.

Measure strongly opposed by Turkey

The debate surrounding the measure comes amid the run-up to the French presidential race in the spring and critics have said said the law is a ploy to gain votes among the country's 500,000 Armenians. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

France's parliament voted Monday to make it a crime to deny that the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago constituted a genocide, risking more sanctions from Turkey and complicating an already delicate relationship with the rising power.

Turkey, which sees the allegations of genocide as a threat to its national honour, suspended military, economic and political ties with France and briefly recalled its ambassador last month when the lower house of parliament approved the same bill.

Before Monday's Senate vote, Turkey threatened more measures if the bill passed, though did not specify them. President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose party supported the bill, still needs to sign it into law, but that is largely considered a formality.

The debate surrounding the measure comes in the highly charged run-up to France's presidential elections this spring, and critics have called the move a ploy to the garner votes of the some 500,000 Armenians who live in France.

Valerie Boyer, the lawmaker from Sarkozy's conservative UMP party who wrote the bill, did not deny that, saying politicians are supposed to pass laws they think their constituents want.

"That's democracy," she said.

But this domestic gamble could have major international consequences. France's relations with Turkey are already strained, in large part because Sarkozy opposes Turkey's entry into the European Union. The law will no doubt further sour relations with a NATO member that is playing an increasingly important role in the international community's response to the violence in Syria, the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and peace negotiations in the Middle East.

"It is null and void for us," Turkey's Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said on live TV immediately after the bill's passage Monday. "It is a great disgrace and injustice against Turkey. I want to tell to France that you have no value for us in the slightest degree, we don't care."

Measure fiercely debated

The bill has also drawn massive protests in Paris, with thousands of Turks converging on the city this weekend to denounce it. On Monday, smaller rival demonstrations, separated by a substantial police presence, gathered outside the Senate.

The Senate voted 127 to 86 to pass the bill late Monday. Twenty-four people abstained. The measure sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine worth the equivalent of $45,000 for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings.

Despite the potentially serious consequences, many senators did not show up for the vote, instead allowing colleagues to serve as proxies. Those in the Senate chamber, however, fiercely debated the measure over several hours.

Turkey's ambassador to France later lamented the vote.

"Everyone is going to suffer [from this]. France, Turkey, Armenia of course. There will be unfortunately a radicalization of positions of all sides," said Tahsin Burcuoglu.

For some in France, the bill is part of a tradition of legislation in some European countries, born of the agonies of the Holocaust, that criminalizes the denial of genocides. Denying the Holocaust is already a crime in France.

Most historians contend that the 1915 killings of 1.5 million Armenians as the Ottoman Empire broke up was the 20th century's first genocide, and several European countries recognize the massacres as such. Switzerland has convicted people of racism for denying the genocide.

But Turkey says that there was no systematic campaign to kill Armenians and that many Turks also died during the chaotic disintegration of the empire. It also says that death toll is inflated.