Why has the French government now chosen to punish its citizens for denying the Armenian genocide? On Thursday 12 October, the lower house of the French Parliament adopted a bill which would provide a jail sentence and a heavy fine to anyone denying the genocide committed by Ottoman Turks against the Armenians in 1915. The bill was passed in the National Assembly by 106 votes to 19. The punishment to be issued for the denial of the Armenian genocide – set at a maximum of one year prison term and 45,000 euros (£30,000) fine – is equal to the punishment already dealt under French law for the denial of the holocaust. To many states in the international community – in particular Turkey – this move aggressively counters an already problematic Turkish law, under which a writer may be prosecuted for the opposite: proposing that there were a set of atrocities in 1915 that the government should accept as “genocide”.
To be clear, according to the UN and many Western scholars, the Armenian genocide did happen. International authorities do recognise the event as the Armenian genocide of 1915, a direct case of that led to the persecution and death of 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians. To date, the Turkish government and a number of Turkish nationalists do not recognise those series of events as constituting anything like “genocide.” There is, in this sense, a huge open public space prepared for discussion.
Yet in this new legislative development, it seems important to ask why the French government has adopted the bill? Will this bill greatly disturb Franco-Turk relations? Why have the French chosen to intervene on the free expression of the Armenian genocide at this peculiar time, marked by the attempted Turkish EU-membership and the high profile controversies surrounding the freedom of speech in Turkey? In my view, there is a decisive background to how the French authorities have adopted the “denial bill” – but there is a huge vacuum in explaining why it has asserted the bill at the cost of infuriating Turkey. The French government has passed a bill which first, not only threatens the freedom of expression on the Turk-Armenian genocide issue but second, will possibly damage Euro-Turk political and economic relations irretrievably.
The adoption of the French “anti-denial bill” was taken as an insult by the Turkish government. The Turkish had warned France not to pass the legislation. Furthermore, almost as soon as the bill had been passed in the National Assembly, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued the following statement: “Turkish-French relations, which have been meticulously developed over the centuries, took a severe blow today through the irresponsible initiatives of some short-sighted French politicians, based on unfounded allegations.” Given the degree of disgust experienced by the Turkish authorities, why did the French even choose to consider the nightmare legislation? The only alleviation of the tension seems to have come from President Chirac’s subsequent half-hearted apology to the Turkish Prime Minister – and perhaps the fact that the bill has yet to pass before the Senate and the President before it can finally become law.
In several high profile literary controversies, it became immediately noticeable that the Turkish penal system opposed the free discussion, publishing and writing on the Armenian genocide. The most influential of those trials were those of Orhan Pamuk – who has since won the Nobel Prize for Literature – and Elif Shafak – who courageously gave birth as her trials were being held. Both authors faced charges of “insulting Turkishness” under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. In late December 2005, Orhan Pamuk was charged with “insulting Turkishness” after the author had claimed in a Swiss newspaper that 30,000 Kurds and one million Ottoman Armenians were killed in Turkey yet nobody in the Turkish population would dare talk about it. The trial was dismissed by the Turkish Ministry of Justice at the beginning of 2006. Later this year, author of Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak, also faced charges of “insulting Turkishness” under the antediluvian legislation. Subsequent to an earlier dismissal in the year, the seventh High Criminal Court had revived the charges made by Kemal Kerincsiz’s nationalist jurist group, ‘The Unity of Jurists.’ Fortunately, in the final week of September, Shafak was immediately acquitted – but not without significant intimidation of her novel-writing which delved into the dialogues of the 1915 genocide.
The suppression of free expression in Turkey has occurred for writers and journalists such as Pamuk and Shafak because of the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, prohibiting “insulting Turkishness”. Ironically, the troubled legislation was passed in 2005 as a measure of bringing Turkish law into alignment with the Copenhagen criteria of the European Union. After the Shafak trial, the EU Commission spokesperson, Krisztina Nagy, insisted that Article 301 “continues to pose a significant threat to freedom of expression in Turkey and all those who express a non-violent opinion.” That, in many respects, reflects the majority-opinion of the EU.
Then, more recently, it became visible that the Turkish genocide issue was not only angering the French government but it was an identifiable issue upon which the French were pushing for Turkish EU-access membership to be granted – i.e. ‘the Turkish should be pushed to admit the Armenian genocide, and if they refuse, then they shall forfeit a place as an EU-member state’. The opposing French Socialist Party – which pushed through the legislation – held that the bill protects and rewards the Armenians in exile from a country that still refuses to accept the atrocity. Then, on 30 September, in a visit to Yerevan, the French President confirmed his position: “Should Turkey recognize the genocide of Armenia to join the EU? … I believe so. Each country grows by acknowledging the dramas and errors of its past. … Can one say that Germany which has deeply acknowledged the holocaust, has as a result lost credit? It has grown.”
I subsequently reported on how France had been left alone on this position since other EU-member states seemed ready to treat Turkey softly on this issue – I also speculated, quite rightly, that this would have detrimental diplomatic relations with the Turkish government, by arguing: “It might also be thought that Chirac could not afford to push the condition too far, since it may bring substantial damage to Franco-Turk relations before Turkey has even begun to attempt its progress towards European harmonization.” Now, that problematic tension has evolved, it is clear enough for us all to see the aggravation caused, illustrating both bilateral and multilateral tensions.
The various European institutions, eager not to be seen as possessing double-standards, have been as strong in their condemnations of France’s new bill as they have been of Turkey’s Article 301 in the past. Both pieces of legislation condemn the freedom of discussion on the 1915 genocide issue; in opposition, the respective governments only recognise the acceptance of the genocide (France) or the rejection of it (Turkey). EU Enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, has issued many warnings to Turkey over the literary controversies for “insulting Turkishness” but on 9 October, he turned to France to issue a similar warning: “…The French law on the Armenian genocide is of course a matter for French lawmakers, but there is a lot at stake for the European Union as well, and the decision may have very serious consequences for EU-Turkey relations … This [legislation] would put in danger the efforts of all those in Turkey – intellectuals, historians, academics, authors – who truly want to develop an open and serious debate without taboos and for the sake of freedom of expression.” That is to say, in a nutshell, that the predicament of problematic tensions is characterised by a removal of free expression on a very pertinent political issue as well as the damage to Turkey’s future relations in Europe.
The most flawed of all the French proponents of the bill was French MEP, Patrick Gaubert, claiming that “Europe is a continent where freedom of speech is guaranteed in an extraordinary manner. But free speech ends when the memories of a people are abused and their feelings are suffering from lies.” Obviously, Gaubert needs to radically revise his reviews since that is not the accepted view of defending free expression and contrary of his opinion, it is more important to talk about sensitive issues such as “genocide” than to lock people up for them. Unfortunately for France, it is widely recognised that one of the most fundamental defences of free expression in relation to a diversity of religious and political doctrines derives not from a French source but from one of Britain’s great philosopher’s, John Stuart Mill. In the doctrine of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859, the right to freedom of expression and its conditions are stated concisely and transparently. The most fundamental principle of a freely operating liberal society is the right to the “freedom of opinion.” The only exception in which Mill could conceive that this freedom might be limited was if it were to impose severe physical harm onto others – and only under very rare conditions could this exception be true. As a result, the French government’s intervention into a literary controversy should not have been at all possible. In France’s peculiar rationale, it somehow thought that the socialist cause, with the backing of the free vote from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), was enough to bar free expression. For the rest of Europe, that is not reason enough to bar the fundamental right to free expression. Nor does the new French reasoning seem reasonable enough to destroy further diplomatic relations with Turkey – whether it enters the EU or not.