Human rights activists hold pictures of Armenian victims in front of the historical Haydarpasa station in Istanbul
Human rights activists commemorate the mass killing of Armenians that took place in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire by holding up photos of some of the victims outside the Haydarpasa train station in Istanbul. Reuters

(Reuters) -- France approved Monday a bill making it illegal to deny that the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide, raising the prospect of a major diplomatic rift between two NATO allies.

Senators in the upper house voted 127 to 86 in favor of the draft law outlawing genocide denial after almost six hours of debate. The lower house had backed it in December, prompting Ankara to cancel all economic, political and military meetings with Paris and recall its ambassador for consultations.

The bill had been made more general so that it outlawed the denial of any genocide, partly in the hope of appeasing the Turks. It now goes to President Nicolas Sarkozy to be signed.

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 Armenia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian.

Turkey's ambassador to France Tahsin Burcuoglu told reporters he was saddened by the vote and warned there would be permanent measures taken against France.

Armenia, backed by many historians and parliaments, says about 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed in what is now eastern Turkey during World War I in a deliberate policy of genocide ordered by the Ottoman government.

The Ottoman Empire was dissolved after the end of the war, but successive Turkish governments and the vast majority of Turks feel the charge of genocide is a direct insult to their nation. Ankara argues there was heavy loss of life on both sides during fighting in the area.

Earlier, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg that Ankara would take new and permanent measures unless the bill was rejected and compared it to the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, which was created by the Catholic Church to stamp out heresy.

If the law is voted (through), it will hurt French and Turkish relations. Arinc said Turkey could take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights.

Turkey says the bill is a bid by Sarkozy to win the votes of 500,000 ethnic Armenians in France in the two-round presidential vote on April 22 and May 6.

It mandates a maximum 45,000-euro ($58,000) fine and a year in jail for offenders. France passed a law recognizing the killing of Armenians as genocide in 2001.


About 200 Franco-Turks protested outside the Senate. They waved their French voting cards and banners with slogans including: It's not up to politicians to invent history.

The Socialist Party, which has a majority in the upper house, and Sarkozy's UMP party, which put forward the bill, both backed the legislation.A non-binding Senate recommendation last week said the law would be unconstitutional and, after weeks of aggressive Turkish lobbying, there were suggestions the outcome would be closer.

Opponents in the Senate said the law would not encourage the Turks to recognize the Armenian genocide and would do nothing to help relations between the two nations.

It is an unbearable law which calls into question historical research, said centre-left senator Jacques Mezard.

Sarkozy is expected to ratify the bill before parliament is suspended in February ahead of the presidential election.

It could still be rejected if some 60 lawmakers agree to appeal the decision at the country's highest court and that body considers the text unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council would have one month to make its decision.

Sarkozy wrote to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan last week saying the bill did not single out any country and that Paris was aware of the suffering endured by the Turkish people during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero called on Turkey not to overreact and said Paris considered Ankara a very important ally.

Engin Solakoglu, first secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Paris, said: France can't continue to say that Turkey is an important ally when it votes laws against it.

European Union candidate Turkey could not impose economic sanctions on France, given its World Trade Organisation membership and customs union accord with Europe.

But the row could cost France state-to-state contracts and would create diplomatic tension as Turkey takes an increasingly influential role in the Middle East.