Turkey’s ambassador to France, Tahsin Burcuoglu: “This is a very sensitive issue for Turkey”
The Turkish prime minister has said a bill passed by the French parliament on the mass killing of Armenians under Ottoman rule is “racist”.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Turkish parliament in Ankara that the bill “murdered freedom of thought”.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to sign the bill into law before the end of February.
Armenia says that up to 1.5 million people died in 1915-16 as the Ottoman empire split.
Turkey, which rejects the term “genocide”, has said the number of deaths was much smaller.
Defenders of the bill point out that it covers all acts of genocide.
‘Footsteps of fascism’
“This is a racist and discriminatory approach and if you cannot see this, then you are deaf to the footsteps of fascism in Europe,” Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday, a day after the bill was adopted by the French Senate.
Turkey, he added, hoped for the success of a French appeal against the bill to the constitutional commission.
“We will wait and see the developments and decide on our reply to them,” he said.
There has been plenty of strong comment by Turkish officials and in the media over the newly approved genocide bill – one paper likened President Sarkozy to Satan – but in his first comments Prime Minister Erdogan was surprisingly restrained.
For us this law has no validity, he told MPs from his party in Ankara – it will take European values right back to mediaeval times. Turkey, he said, is a big power now – nobody can play games with us.
Mr Erdogan said he would take retaliatory measures against France if President Sarkozy approved the law but did not spell out what they would be, nor did he encourage Turkish people to show their own displeasure.
Beyond symbolic sanctions, like withdrawing its ambassador, it is not clear what Turkey can do. France is its fifth biggest trade partner but economic sanctions are impossible because of the free-trade agreement Turkey has with the EU.
However political and diplomatic relations will remain frozen for some time, especially if Mr Sarkozy is re-elected later this year, and that cannot help Turkey’s already faltering candidacy for EU membership.
Earlier, the Turkish foreign ministry warned that Turkey planned to respond with unspecified measures against France.
It appeared to tie the bill to France’s forthcoming elections.
“It is further unfortunate that the historical… relations between the Republic of Turkey and France have been sacrificed to considerations of political agenda,” the ministry said.
An estimated 500,000 ethnic Armenians live in the country.
Correspondents say the French bill threatens to cause a serious rift between France and Turkey, who are Nato allies.
The Turkish government argues that judging what happened in eastern Turkey in 1915-16 should be left to historians, and that the new French law will restrict freedom of speech.
France has already recognised the killings as a genocide but the new bill means anyone denying it faces a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($57,000).
The killings are regarded as the seminal event of modern Armenian history, a tragic bond uniting one of the world’s most dispersed peoples.
Among the other states which formally recognise them as genocide are Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay, but the UK, US, Israel and others use different terminology.
Armenia has described Monday’s vote – by 127 votes to 86 – as “historic”.
“This day will be written in gold not only in the history of friendship between the Armenian and French peoples, but also in the annals of the history of the protection of human rights,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian.
France and Turkey in figures
- France is Turkey’s fifth biggest export market and the sixth biggest source of its imports
- Volume of trade in 2010: 11.6bn euros with a surplus of 862m euros in France’s favour
- About 350 French companies were active in Turkey in 2010
- About 550,000 Turkish citizens live in France while nearly 930,000 French tourists visited Turkey in 2010
- sources: Turkish foreign ministry and Reuters news agency
However, in neighbouring Azerbaijan, a senior member of the ruling party said France’s credibility as a mediator with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute had been damaged and it should abandon its role there.
“France has betrayed its mediator mission,” said Ali Ahmadov, executive secretary of the New Azerbaijan Party.
Ankara froze ties with France after the lower house passed the bill last month.
The proposed law had been made more general – outlawing the denial of any genocide – but still failed to appease Ankara.
Last week, President Sarkozy wrote to Mr Erdogan saying the bill did not single out any country.
He said France recognised the “suffering endured by the Turkish people” in the final years of the Ottoman empire.
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero called on Turkey not to overreact, saying Paris considered Ankara a “very important ally”.