20 October 2006

1171) Mind your own business, France

ANKARA is in an uproar. Turks are reacting bitterly to the tactlessness of the French National Assembly in passing a bill that would criminalize "denial" of the Armenian "genocide."

Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy of France is right: The vote is seen as an unfriendly gesture by a vast majority of the Turkish people. We are dismayed by the ease with which French lawmakers seem willing to jeopardize relations between France and Turkey dating from the 16th century. . .

What puzzles us even more is that of all countries, France - seen by us as the symbol of civil liberties and free speech - would become hostage to a small, if influential, lobby that exploits every electoral opportunity to advance its narrow agenda.

Lawmakers are not historians and their attempt to establish facts about an extremely sensitive and complicated historic event is misguided at best. Further, the proposed bill represents a blow to freedom of expression at a time when European Union member states regularly lecture Ankara on legislation they view as curtailing free speech.

Both on grounds of substance and process, the National Assembly's action is deeply offensive and counterproductive. That is why the EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, and 16 prominent French historians opposed the bill.

Many Turks interpret the National Assembly's action as not just an attempt to appease an active lobby, but also as a populist appeal to the majority of the French public opposed to Turkish membership in the European Union.

In the run-up to what promises to be a very competitive presidential race next spring, both the French left and right seem ill disposed toward a predominantly Muslim country interested in EU membership.

Bound legally by the EU Council's decision to start accession negotiations with Turkey, French lawmakers may hope to provoke an already unsettled Turkey to quit the negotiations by touching a sensitive nerve. Whether such irresponsible behavior hinders efforts to heal the wounds of World War I and the tragedy of Ottoman Armenians seems to be lost on them.

Ironically, this ill-considered action comes at a time when Turkey's domestic debate on the Armenian issue is more open than at any time in the past. Turks on both sides of the issue are intensely discussing what happened in 1915-1916 and whether it can be defined as genocide.

Last year, in an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey and Armenia set up a joint commission of historians to determine whether the events of 1915-1916 constituted genocide. The offer was rejected by Armenia. Turkey also organized its first international conference on the Armenian issue with Armenian historians last year. Furthermore, Turkey's determination to join the EU provides ongoing impetus for this healthy process of reconciliation to continue.

Turkish-Armenian reconciliation cannot be facilitated by laws passed in foreign parliaments. Such moves only help those who thrive on the continuation of the impasse between Turks and Armenians.

As tempting as gesture politics may be for French politicians, any genuine effort at reconciliation must be based on the recognition that both Armenians and Turks suffered immensely during the fateful years of World War I. To move forward, the focus must be broadened to include common losses and experiences during this period, rather than limited to the question of whether the events of 1915-1916 can be qualified as genocide. Context is critical.

Having Turkey as a member in the EU is both in Europe's and Armenia's interest. Provoking Turkey on a sensitive issue only serves to further alienate a country whose destiny will have a major impact on the greater Europe of which Armenia is also part.

As the British Armenian historian Ara Sarafian eloquently noted, the ultimate irony is that France, which has not faced up to its own genocidal past, dares to pass legislation on Turkey's past.

Thankfully our lawmakers are unlikely to follow that path. After all, we want to remain true to the ideals of Rousseau, Voltaire and the French encyclopedists who inspired us and the European Enlightenment.

Suat Kiniklioglu is director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Suat Kiniklioglu
International Herald Tribune
October 19, 2006


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