Francis McLoughlin discusses tensions twixt France and Turkey.
The French Senate, after some rumination, has passed a bill that will imprison any French citizen who denies that the Armenian genocide of 1915 took place. On top of serving one year behind bars, genocide-deniers will find themselves saddled with a €45,000 fine and the shame of a criminal record. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AKP government glowered at the effrontery of the very prospect of this bill being signed into French law, and has already imposed economic, political and military sanctions on the Fifth Republic after expelling the French ambassador for a brief time. Mr. Erdoğan is known for his chauvinistic policies and public outbursts; there is simply no way of telling how long the animosity between France and Turkey would have lasted even if the bill had been discarded.
When pushed, the official line in Turkey has been to insist that the said genocide was actually some sort of lop-sided civil war, whereby the Christian Armenians were guilty of rising up against their Turkish neighbours in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Otherwise, talk of such things has been discouraged in the first place with the believable threat of harsh repercussions and imprisonment under Turkey’s notorious law 301 (the ‘anti-Turkishness’ law). While Turkey has long repressed discussion about the Armenian genocide, or even the mere assertion that the event happened, France now wishes to repress any denial of it. One would like to think that the Jeffersonian point should really have become elementary to any thinking person by now: If the right of all citizens to free expression is withdrawn from anyone, especially someone whose views are deemed to be appalling or unpopular (an Armenian genocide-denier, for instance), then it would be weakened in general. It seems that the French Senate is having some trouble coming to terms with this, however.
Franco-Turkish relations have frayed over the years since President Nicolas Sarkozy spearheaded the opposition to Turkey’s admittance into the European Union, declaring that Europe ended in the Bosphorus and denying the received wisdom that Turkey has historically been the bridge between the East and the West. But Turkey also damaged its chances of entering the EU in April 2009 when a NATO meeting was called to decide who would be their next spokesmen. When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, was set to win, Turkey vetoed the vote on the grounds that Mr. Rasmussen had been unwilling (not to mention legally unable) to censor Jyllands Posten, a Danish newspaper, when it published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006. After receiving phone calls from numerous heads of Islamic Republics, the AKP deemed Mr. Rasmussen’s refusal to censor his country’s free press unacceptable, and thus, on this as on many other occasions, Turkey threw the principle of free expression to the wind.
While the AKP is known for its populist Islamist policies, the current President of the Fifth Republic may be seen to have engaged in the same all-to-easy pandering for quick votes in the wake of France’s upcoming Presidential elections on 22 April and 6 May. Since Mr. Sarkozy will face strong competition from the Socialist candidate François Hollande and the centrist Democratic Movement’s François Bayrou amid a thickening atmosphere of anti-sarkozysme, and with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front soaking up support from many discontented souls, especially in the wake of the Eurozone crisis, it does not require any great stretch of the imagination to see that the bill is a deplorable attempt to win the affection of France’s 500,000-strong Armenian community through a perverse curtailment of free speech.
As for the 70,000 Armenian citizens who live in Turkey today, most are pessimistic about the possibility that the injustices done to their murdered ancestors by the Ottoman Turks will ever be recognised by officialdom. Still, one has no real reason to suspect that they lack support among the general population. In 1915, after all, many Turks actually resisted the slaughter of their Christian fellow residents, who were transported to numerous extermination camps throughout the country before being melded together in mass graves. This is why not a few Turks have discovered that they have (say) an Armenian grandmother. Nobody knows the exact number of Armenians killed in the shootings and death marches that began in April 1915, but historians have estimated the figure to be between 1.2 million and 1.4 million. At any rate, on the threshold of the First World War, Turkish government records show that the Armenian population declined from 1,256,000 to 284,157, and between 1915 and 1916, some 972,000 Armenians were simply erased from official population records.
In other words, doubts about the fact of the Armenian genocide are no longer tenable. We even possess a carbon-copy of the document that the Turkish interior minister, Talaat Pasha, sent his prefect in Aleppo on 15 September 1915, on which was printed the following order: “You have already been informed that the Government… has decided to destroy completely all the indicated persons living in Turkey… Their existence must be terminated, however tragic the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex, or to any scruples of conscience”. Raphael Lemkin, the eminent Jewish-Polish lawyer, actually coined the word ‘genocide’ to describe this atrocity against the Armenians. It is only shameful to reflect that many of the those who carried out the systematic massacres held senior positions in the Turkish government for years later, and that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not come to an end in 1923. On the contrary, for years afterwards, the 300,000 Armenians who survived became the victims of further measures to drive them out of Turkey.
With this history, one is perturbed to hear the threat Mr. Erdoğan issued in April 2009 when he said he would deport Turkey’s remaining Armenian population if the US congress did not cease pestering him by harking on about the genocide. “In my country”, Mr. Erdoğan said, “there are 170,000 Armenians. Seventy thousand of them are citizens. We tolerate 100,000 more. So, what am I going to do tomorrow? If necessary I will tell the 100,000: OK, time to go back to your country”. Would Turkey’s head of state envision the indignation he would undoubtedly experience if the EU ever decided to deport the thousands upon thousands of Turkish guest-workers across the continent? Ironically, although on a much greater scale, such thuggish rhetoric was reminiscent of the Sarkozy government’s policy of mass-deportation of France’s Gypsy community to Romania in 2010, which provoked criticism from prominent human rights groups.
At any rate, there is $13.5 billion at stake in Franco-Turkish trade, and France remains a major investor in the Turkish economy. With this in mind, it is clear that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rage must grapple with a sober assessment of the costs and benefits of imposing the sanctions he is surely hankering for: withdrawing the Turkish ambassador from France, placing a ban on French military aircraft and naval vessels from entering his country’s airspace or waters, taking his business with French military firms elsewhere, and curbing French investment into projects in his proud country whose body lies, by no fault of its own, beyond the supposedly so crucial Bosphorus. Besides the diplomatic side of things, the sordid clash of two chauvinistic governments, both of which violate the same principle of free expression while decrying the rottenness of the other, is grating on the ears. Let’s hope the Turkish government can grow up by 2015 in time for the hundred-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and for the French Republic to be able to assimilate a simple maxim into the fabric of its law and civil society.