BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Armenians in France and the United States have a common challenge in 2012: To do everything in their power to block reelection of their deceptive presidents.
Neither Nicolas Sarkozy nor Barack Obama kept their promises to their respective Armenian constituents. The French President failed to honor his commitment to support a law penalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide, while the American leader broke his promise to acknowledge the genocide.
The long trail of Obama’s broken promises is well-known, but not many know about Sarkozy’s deception. On January 29, 2001, Pres. Jacques Chirac signed into law a decision adopted by the National Assembly on May 29, 1998, and the Senate on November 7, 2000, recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian community then petitioned the French government to assign a penalty of 45,000 euros and 5-year imprisonment for denial of the Armenian Genocide, similar to the existing law penalizing denial of the Jewish Holocaust.
This reasonable expectation turned into a major controversy due to Turkish pressure on France and opposition from some French intellectuals who staunchly defended free speech. Under these circumstances, the French government tried to block a vote on this measure in the National Assembly.
The French intellectuals, who objected to this law on grounds of restricting freedom of expression, conveniently ignored the fact that a similar law existed in France since 1990 to punish those who deny the Holocaust. The objections raised by Turkish denialists, on the other hand, were totally absurd. Turkey’s autocratic leaders had no right whatsoever to lecture the French on freedom of expression, while their own country arrested journalists, censored the media, and banned the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide.
It was unfortunate that some well-intentioned but naive Armenians and their liberal Turkish friends also opposed the proposed law, thereby unintentionally supporting Turkish denialism. They opposed this bill by equating the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code banning the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, with the proposed French law penalizing the denial of the genocide. This is a farcical comparison because the Turkish law makes it a crime to tell the truth about the Armenian Genocide, while the French law makes it a crime to lie about it! Why didn’t these liberal Turks and French intellectuals, who claim to support freedom of speech, object to a similar French law penalizing denial of the Holocaust? Doesn’t that law also restrict freedom of speech? Why shouldn’t Armenian genocide victims be accorded equal protection under French law?
After lengthy debates and delays, the French National Assembly approved the law on penalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide on October 12, 2006, and sent it to the Senate, where it has been stalled until last week.
While Sarkozy was a presidential candidate, he repeatedly promised to support adoption of this law in the French Senate. But as President, he reversed course and opposed the measure. After coming under intense criticism by Charles Aznavour and the influential French Armenian community, and realizing that he is badly trailing his likely opponents in next year’s presidential election, Pres. Sarkozy recently met with several prominent French Armenians and promised not to oppose the bill in the Senate. This was too little too late. After Turkish leaders once again unleashed an intense lobbying campaign, Sarkozy’s political party (UMP), which holds a majority in the Senate, was instructed by his government to oppose the bill. On May 4, after a three-hour debate, the Senate refused to take up the measure by a vote of 196-74.
The battle for this bill is by no means over. Taking advantage of Pres. Sarkozy’s poor rating in the polls, Armenians will now join forces with a majority of French voters to support the Socialist Party’s candidate in next year’s presidential election, just as Armenian-Americans are preparing to oppose Pres. Obama in the 2012 elections.
In an attempt not to alienate Armenian voters altogether in the upcoming elections, France’s Justice Minister proposed the formation of a joint commission of Armenians and ministry officials that would bring to the courts’ attention incidents of genocide denial. This is a welcome development and in line with the existing commission on the Holocaust, but French Armenians should still insist on having a law that penalizes denial of the Armenian Genocide.
While politicians, whether in France or the United States, are notorious for breaking their promises, Armenians in both countries can only reach their objectives by pooling their resources and forming a cohesive voting block that backs their political supporters and counters their opponents.