A committee of the French Senate voted in favor of a proposal on Wednesday that rejects a controversial bill criminalizing the denial of Armenian claims of genocide.
This does not mean that the genocide bill will not go to the French Senate on Jan. 23 as planned. But if the senate votes in favor of the proposal rejecting it, the genocide bill will not be taken up by the senate.
Wednesday’s decision is likely to please Turkey, which has warned that the bill, if enacted, would seriously affect Turkish-French ties. The bill was passed in the lower house of the French Parliament in December, but it needs to be approved by the senate to go into effect.
Wednesday’s vote comes days after the president of the senate said he was becoming less inclined to pass laws on historic events. “I am becoming less and less supportive of making laws in Parliament regarding historic events,” Jean-Pierre Bel said last week. Bel, a socialist politician, also added that he was worried about the direction of bilateral relations between Turkey and France “at a time when relations need to be strengthened.”
"We consider that if this law was passed, there would be a large risk of it being unconstitutional," said Jean-Pierre Sueur, the commission head. "We cannot write history with laws. Freedom of expression must be respected," Sueur said.
A number of French senators, led by the Green group and the European Democrat and Social Rally (RDSE), also said they would vote against the bill. Although a number of Socialists and senators from Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party are also expected to vote against the bill, Turkey fears the bill might pass nevertheless, negatively affecting relations between the two countries even further.
Officials at the Senate press office said that in the vast majority of cases the full chamber follows the recommendations of the Commission of Laws.
However, rejection by the Senate does not necessarily kill a measure that the lower house - the most powerful in France - wants passed into law. The National Assembly can resurrect the bill and try again, and eventually gets the last word.
Turkey warned France in December, when the bill passed through the lower house of the French Parliament, that ties would receive a heavy blow from the denial bill, which would constitute passing judgment “on a historic and sensitive event by politicians, rather than by historians.” Although Turkey cannot take financial measures against France for the bill due to its commitment to international agreements and the EU customs union regulations, the country stressed that Turkish business circles and the nation would naturally refrain from buying French products.
When France passed a law recognizing the killing of Armenians in 1915 as genocide in 2001, French exports to Turkey dropped by 40 percent. Exports have gradually recovered over the last decade. The denial bill envisions fining and punishing anyone who refuses to acknowledge the Armenian deaths as genocide, putting it on the same level with the Holocaust. Turkey rejects the bill on grounds that it takes away Turks’ right to debate the issue and violates freedom of expression, since the country claims that the killings constitute casualties as a result of a civil war that erupted when the Ottoman Empire was about to collapse amidst World War I.
Armenians deaths, estimated to be well over a million by Armenians and being a few hundred thousand by Turks, have gained recognition as genocide in a number of countries, especially in Latin America, and Turkey does not refrain reacting harshly when the issue is discussed by third country parliaments, saying that such rulings are politically motivated.
Two scenarios are now most likely when the French Senate debates the bill Monday, Senate press officials said. Senators could ignore the panel vote and pass the bill, putting it on a fast track to becoming law, or they could reject the bill, handing it to a commission from both houses to iron out differences.
The second option would greatly slow the legislative process. A freeze on all but the most critical legislation goes into effect in early March ahead of spring presidential and legislative elections.
In a statement, the commission said: "There was a genocide, and the commission wants to express its infinite respect for the Armenian people, and the terrible experiences that they have endured."
But the panel also expressed doubts about "the legitimacy of the intervention of the legislature in the field of history" and suggested that commemorations or legislative resolutions might be a better way to express sympathy for the suffering than laws to criminalize some types of speech.
Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on Wednesday that French commission displayed its commonsense by the decision.