Thousands of Turks from across Europe marched through the French capital on Saturday denouncing a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide.
Turks young and old, waving their country’s red flag, or wrapped in it, marched to the Senate, where the bill will be debated today after passage last month in the lower house.
They carried banners reading “No to Sarkozy Shame Law,” “History for Historians, Politics for Politicians” or other slogans denouncing an alleged bid by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to “fish for votes” among French Armenians before the two-round presidential elections in April and May.
Critics say the real aim of the bill is to ensure votes for Sarkozy from French Armenians in the two-round presidential elections. An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France.
The measure would make it a crime to deny that mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks constitute genocide. It sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros (US$59,000) for those who deny or “outrageously minimize” the killings — putting such action on par with denial of the Holocaust.
France formally recognized the 1915 killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone refuting that.
Despite the passing of nearly 100 years since the killings, the issue remains a deeply emotional one for Armenians who lost loved ones and for Turks who see a challenge to their national honor.
An irate Turkey briefly recalled its ambassador to France and suspended military, economic and political ties.
“Politicians who haven’t read an article on this say there was a genocide,” said Beyhan Yildirim, 35, a demonstrator from Berlin.
He was among those bused into Paris from Germany and elsewhere for Saturday’s march.
Scores of buses from France, Germany and elsewhere lined the streets of southern Paris where the march began.
Armenians plan a demonstration near the Senate today before the debate and vote.
It was unclear whether the measure would get the easy ride it did in the National Assembly, the lower but more powerful house.
The Senate is controlled by the rival Socialists who had earlier backed the bill. However, the Senate Commission on Laws voted against its passage last week, saying the measure risks violating constitutional protections including freedom of speech. The question is whether the Socialists will heed the recommendations if only because the issue is becoming an electoral hot potato.
Compromising freedom of expression in France, considered the cradle of human rights, has been a key argument of the Turkish government against the measure.
It is unclear whether lawmakers in the National Assembly had an inkling in advance that their vote giving the green light to the bill would trigger a diplomatic dispute. There appeared to be less than 100 lawmakers present for the Dec. 22 vote — out of 577.
Fadime Ertugrul-Tastan, deputy mayor of small Normandy town of Herouville, was among those demonstrating against the bill on Saturday. She said her family hailed from Kars, near the Armenian border, and her grandparents were killed by Armenians.
“I am here to honor their memory,” she said, adding, “There was no genocide because we were in a period of war.”