Debating Non-Recognition of the Armenian Genocide
Les Yeux on France: Debating Non-Recognition of the Armenian Genocide
(AIX-EN-PROVENCE) – Two different approaches by French politicians in the past few weeks have stirred debate in France on how Turkey might be made to recognise the Armenian Genocide that took place during World War One. The first is President Jacques Chirac’s symbolic visit to Armenia; the second is a move to legislate against any denial of the Genocide in France. A large majority of the French population want Turkey to confront its demons, as does France’s significant Armenian minority. And the issue is becoming increasingly relevant as the European Union debates Turkey’s membership. Image of Yasmine Ryan by Jason Dorday.
Back in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, a strong Turkish nationalist ideology was forged. Although the regime had ruled over its diverse multiethnic populations in relative harmony for centuries, it became increasingly suspicious of its Armenian and Greek minorities. The Armenian separatist movement Dachnak, supported by Russia, was seen as a threat to the nation’s very survival. Rising tensions led eventually to the drastic decision to deport, not just those involved in the independence struggle, but all Armenians.
And whilst these people were being transported out between 1915 and 1917, a series of extensive massacres occurred. The Turkish government claims the death toll was between 250,000 and 500,000 and that the victims died mostly from cold, exhaustion and hunger, or else were massacred by bandits acting in isolation. The evidence, however, puts the number at approximately 1.5 million. And it is widely accepted that the massacres were ordered from the top level of the Ottoman regime and that they were part of a broad strategy of extermination.
This massive figure makes the Armenian Genocide, in terms of shear scale, second only to the Holocaust. Indeed, Robert Fisk’s account details how the Ottoman Empire’s ideology of extermination had an influence on the Nazi regime. Yet the Armenian Genocide has long been blatantly ignored by the international community, and Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge its past has not been the subject of much criticism.
It is this irony that has captured the French public’s attention in recent years. Turkey’s desire to join the EU is seen as a unique opportunity to pressure the state to change its attitude. In 2001, the Armenian Genocide was officially recognised by the French parliament.
President Chirac’s visit to Armenia was another way to place indirect pressure on Turkey to recognise the atrocity. The Head of State made a series of meaningful public appearances in the small and impoverished state from 29 September to 1 October this year. He stopped off at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial, which honours those who died in the Armenian Genocide, and attended the inauguration of ‘La place de France’, where he spoke of ‘the heroic and tormented history of this people’ and of ‘all the survivors of this tragedy who must take the path of a heartbreaking exile’.
Significantly, Chirac stated in a press conference that he believes Turkey must recognise the Armenian Genocide before it can be admitted into the EU. He made the comparison with the importance of Germany’s recognition of the Holocaust. This is the most forceful statement on the Armenian Genocide that a Western Head of State has ever made. For a people long accustomed to being overlooked, the visit was gratefully received amidst much emotion.
In addition to this bold move by the French President, on the 12 October, Parliament voted in favour of a bill, sponsored by the Socialist Party, which would outlaw any denial of the Armenian Genocide. If it is to pass into law, the parliamentary initiative must now be validated by the Senate. This will be more difficult.
Ankara’s anger at France’s zeal over what it considers to be a private dispute with a neighbour is growing. The Turkish government fears that its acceptance into the EU is at risk. While there was no real vocalisation at Chirac’s more diplomatic gesture, the move to legislate provoked a storm of outrage in Turkey.
Chirac managed to sooth things somewhat by phoning Recep Tayyip Erdogan, telling the Turkish Prime Minister he was very sorry and that he believes the existing legislation is sufficient. Erdogan was appeased by Chirac’s promise to do what he can to prevent the Bill becoming law. Consequently, the reaction against France was moderated: there is merely a semi-boycott. France exports to Turkey were valued at 4.7 billion euros in 2005.
In contrast to Chirac’s visit to Armenia, there have been widespread criticisms of the proposed bill. For many it is a confrontational approach that in fact undermines the cause of those pushing for more honest dialogue within Turkey. It is ironically similar to the Turkish repression of recognition of the Genocide, a point not lost on Turkish critiques. ‘Liberté, égalité, stupidité’ was the headline in the daily newspaper Hurriyët. PM Erdogan called it a ‘primitive law’ pushed through by ‘a few stubborn legislators’. He stated that: ‘Thanks to a few stubborn MPs, the France we know as the nation of liberties must live with this shame. If France doesn’t stop this bill, it’s her that will lose and not Turkey.’ Even Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, viewed as a traitor by many Turks for his recognition of the Armenian Genocide, points out that ‘freedom of expression is a French invention. This law is contrary to this culture of liberty.’
France should continue to encourage the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey, but not by compromising its principles. Pushing too hard risks fuelling Turkish nationalists and creating conflict. Public debate on the issue is growing within Turkey, and gentle diplomacy, such as the example given by President Chirac, could substantially help the nation come to terms with its past.
Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently completing a Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.