In retaliation for France’s efforts to pass a bill that would criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide, Turkey's Prime Minister has accused the French of committing acts of genocide during its colonial occupation of Algeria.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan also charged that French lawmakers are seeking to stir up hatred of Muslims.
“France massacred an estimated 15 percent of the Algerian population starting from 1945. This is genocide, Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
He also claimed that Algerians were burned en masse in ovens, likely in an effort to link France's behavior in Algeria to Nazi Germany's extermination of Jews.
Erdogan added that French President Nicolas Sarkozy “cannot find genocide in the history of Turkey. Once he looks into Turkish history, he cannot find anything other than Turks' tolerance, help and compassion.”
On Thursday, the French National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) overwhelmingly approved a draft bill that would punish those who denied the Armenian genocide in Turkey during 1915-1916 with a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000) and a prison term of up to one year.
The bill moves to France's senate next year. If it passes the upper house, it will become law.
The genocide bill relates to the mass murder of up to 1.5-million Christian Armenians in Eastern Turkey during 1915-1916. Armenian survivors and their descendants claim this was a state-sanctioned mass killing which predated the Nazis extermination of Jews by almost three decades.
Meanwhile, Turkey insists that there was no such genocide and that Armenians, as well as many Turks, died from the realities of war. Moreover, Turkey places the number of Armenian died at “only” 300,000.
Turkey has already recalled its ambassador to Paris and alleged that Sarkozy (whose ruling UMP Party proposed the genocide bill) is cynically seeking to appeal to France's 500,000-strong Armenian community in time for next year's presidential election.
This vote that took place in France, a France in which five million Muslims live, clearly shows to what point racism, discrimination and Islamophobia have reached dangerous levels in France and Europe, Erdogan said.
Erdogan also vowed to impose certain sanctions of France, including a suspension of diplomatic exchanges and a freeze on military cooperation agreements between the two NATO members.
Before departing Paris, the Turkish ambassador Tahsin Burcuoglu told French reporters: We are really very sad. Franco-Turkish relations did not deserve this, When there is a problem it always comes from the French side. The damage is already done. We have been accused of genocide! How could we not overreact? Turkey will never recognise this story of an Armenian genocide. There are limits. A country like Turkey cannot be treated like this.
Ordinary Turks (both in Turkey and in France) have expressed their outrage by demonstrating in public.
Sarkozy has downplayed the controversy, but defended the bill.
While visiting Prague, Czechoslovakia to attend the funeral of Vaclav Havel, the French president told reporters: I respect the views of our Turkish friends -- it's a great country, a great civilization -- and they must respect ours. France does not lecture anyone but France doesn't want to be lectured. France decides its policy as a sovereign nation. We do not ask for permission. France has its beliefs, human rights, a respect for memory.
Interestingly, France passed a law recognizing the murder of Armenians as genocide as long ago as 2001. In 2006, the French lower house passed an earlier bill that declared denial of the Armenian genocide as a crime, but the Senate rejected it in May 2011.
Moreover, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe strongly opposes the bill.
It [the bill] is useless and counter-productive, he told reporters.
Passing laws in France won't change their minds in Turkey. We recognize the consequences. I would expect a robust Turkish response. The retaliation could have damaging and serious consequences.
With regards to the charge that France committed “genocide” in Algeria, French forces fought an eight-year guerrilla war in its North African colony from 1954 to 1962. Estimates of the number of Algerians killed in the conflict range from 250,000 to as much as 1-million.
Erdogan even made his accusations personal, charging that Sarkozy's father Paul Sarkozy served as a French legionnaire and probably was well-acquainted with the massacres.
In response, Paul Sarkozy appeared on French television to declare he had never been deployed to Algeria.
France has likely picked the wrong time to offend Turkey, a country whose economy is surging and raising its stature as a peacemaker in the Middle East. According to reports, Turkey is a major export market for France – annual trade between the two nations amounts to about $16-billion.
On a purely strategic basis, Turkey is an important buttress against both Syria and Iran.
However, tensions between France and Turkey predate the current imbroglio – Sarkozy has long opposed Turkish membership in the European Union.