Genocide-Denial Bill Rocks Turkish-French Relations

A French bill prohibiting denial of the Armenian genocide has Turkey rethinking its "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy.

A while back, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that his country had embarked on a foreign policy based on "zero problems with our neighbors."

But it would seem that Turkey's "zero-problems" policy has in recent years been anything but—with Turkey most recently and loudly at loggerheads with Israel (over Palestine), Cyprus (over the extent of territorial waters and gas-drilling zones and rights), Syria (over the Assad regime's bloody suppression of internal dissent), Iraq (over anti-Kurdish cross-border incursions by the Turkish army) and Greece (over Greece's planned border fence to keep out would-be infiltrating Turkish emigrants bound for the EU).

Recently, it was the turn of Turkish-French relations, with Turkey recalling its ambassador from Paris and suspending all bilateral contacts and relations—political, economic and military—in the wake of the passage by the French lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, of a law prohibiting genocide denial, including the Armenian genocide of World War I.

Armenian spokesmen at the time and many subsequent historians of the period have alleged that the Ottoman Turks murdered between a million and 1.5 million Armenians in the Middle East and the Caucasus in a series of planned and systematic massacres. Though these actions often were camouflaged as "deportations,” the intent, according to historians, was to exterminate the Armenian race, i.e., genocide.

Successive Turkish governments, including the incumbent Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have consistently denied the allegation, arguing that Istanbul had merely put down internal Armenian rebellions—an Armenian "stab in the back,” as it were—as the hard-pressed Ottomans were fighting the Russians, British and a variety of Balkan Christian states during World War I. They have insisted that the death toll amounted to no more than three hundred thousand Armenians (alongside tens of thousands of Turks allegedly murdered by Armenians). Occasionally Turkish spokesmen have conceded that there had been some "excesses"—but by local Ottoman officials and units.

Most non-Turkish historians dealing with World War I have concluded that the Turks, assisted by Kurds, Circassians, Tatars, Azeris and Arabs, committed genocide. For example, Donald Bloxham, a respected historian at Edinburgh University, recently wrote:

It may be said categorically that the killing did constitute a genocide—every aspect of the United Nations' definition of the crime is applicable. . . . [There was among the Turks] a general consensus of destruction of the Armenian national community, a consensus which developed and was augmented over time around broad principles of discrimination and xenophobia, progressing from notions of removal by dilution and\or assimilation to physical removal by deportation and\or murder.

Increasingly Turkish historians, especially those working in democratic countries outside Turkey, have reached the same conclusion. The Turkish-born and educated Taner Akcam, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, investigated the evolution of Turkish policy toward the Armenians. In his major study A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, he called what happened to the Armenians "the deliberate destruction of a people." It was preceded by a plan by the Turkish ruling party, the Committee for Union and Progress. One of the triumvirs who ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Talat Pasha, reportedly explained: "Necessary preparations have been discussed and taken for the complete and fundamental elimination of this concern [i.e., the Armenians] … What we are dealing with here . . . is the annihilation of the Armenians."

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his usual combative style, parried the French move by charging France with committing "genocide" against the Algerians during the 1940s and 1950s, and he even hinted that French president Nicolas Sarkozy's father, Pal Sarkozy, as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion, had taken part. Pal Sarkozy responded that Erdogan's charge was "ludicrous" and that he had never served in Algeria. The Turks added that the French move was governed by Sarkozy's electoral considerations. France has an estimated half a million citizens of Armenian origin and Sarkozy is seeking reelection next year.

For the past few years, Turkey has been fighting a rearguard action against international recognition of the Armenian genocide, often brandishing diplomatic and political threats. But a growing number of countries—including, recently, Argentina and Sweden—have done just that, braving possible Turkish retaliation.

The Turkish suspension of relations with France is probably designed to deter the French upper house, the Senate, from endorsing the genocide-denial bill and perhaps to deter other countries from going down the same path. The United States and Israel are among the states that have so far avoided this path, although the legislatures of forty-three U.S. states have "recognized" the Armenian genocide.

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of 1948, A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press, 2008).