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Last Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
'Genocide' debate angers Turkey
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Turkish protesters outside the French consulate in Istanbul
Turkey says history should be left to the historians
A controversial vote in the French parliament has been called off, averting a diplomatic crisis with Turkey, at least temporarily.

The French National Assembly was due to vote on a bill put forward by the opposition Socialists that would make it illegal to deny what France already recognises as the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The bill recommends up to five years in jail for offenders and fines of up to 45,000 euros (30,600).

The proposal provoked fury in Turkey, which rejects claims that Armenians were systematically massacred during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed in what is now eastern Turkey, and campaign fiercely around the world for Ankara to recognise what Armenia calls the first genocide of the 20th Century.

Turkey says a few hundred thousand died in a war which also left many Turks dead.

Ankara mounted its own campaign against the French bill - and many here will see the stalled vote as at least partial victory.

In a sign of its significance for Turkey, almost the entire debate in France was carried live on two private television channels.

Political concern

Ahead of the session, Ankara had warned Paris of serious repercussions should the bill pass.

Earlier this month, Turkey's ambassador to Paris was recalled for urgent consultations; the prime minister called a meeting of key French businesses here and warned of possible sanctions; a delegation of Turkish MPs descended on Paris, to warn that the bill was a violation of free speech and a threat to bilateral relations.

You cannot make the whole thing disappear by denying it. It is transformed into other shapes, but they keep on haunting you
Murat Belge

There have been street protests here too, partly fuelled by a feeling some in France are using the genocide issue as just another stick to beat Turkey with.

On Wednesday, nationalists laid a black wreath outside the French consulate in Istanbul and shouted their anger at the proposed law.

"Your faces will be darker than this when history reveals the truth!" one protestor yelled, as others denounced the bill as slander.

In the event, the French debate started late and did not finish - so the crucial vote has been postponed until autumn at the earliest.

But with encouraging implications for Ankara, the French foreign minister voiced his strong opposition to the proposal.

Philippe Douste-Blazy said passing the genocide denial bill would be seen as "an unfriendly gesture by the vast majority of Turkish people". He warned that would have serious political consequences.

Historians' challenge

In response, Turkey's foreign ministry issued a statement saying it does not expect to see the bill returned to parliament ever again.

French protest
In Paris, supporters of the Armenian victims waited for the vote
Increasingly under fire from abroad on this issue, Turkey argues that history should be left to the historians. It has asked Paris to support its recent proposal to establish a joint Turkish-Armenian commission to investigate the Ottoman archives.

Critics say all meaningful evidence has long since been destroyed, and question the professed openness of Turkish state historians to a full academic examination of the past.

But the long taboo on discussing the events of 1915 has been broken.

Last year an academic conference challenged the official history for the first time. It was highly controversial, and one of the organisers is still facing related criminal charges.

Murat Belge accepts that the controversy over his conference has only hardened some minds even further. But he senses others have been prompted to reconsider the facts they were fed in school - a process he believes is crucial.

"When such a thing is denied, the dead are not buried. And when they are not buried you have ghosts going round, rattling their chains," Mr Belge argues.

I really don't know why the French are dealing with this so much

"You cannot make the whole thing disappear by denying it. It is transformed into other shapes, but they keep on haunting you."

But in the street cafes of French Street in the heart of European Istanbul - where the smell of coffee wafts across the cobbles - there is little sign of a new attitude.

If anything, it seems the row with France has only hardened proud hearts here.

"I can't understand why this kind of vote is necessary," Duyugu frowns. "This kind of thing is empty for us, because I can't believe there was a genocide."

"We all studied history," her friend Ayse interrupts. "We know no such thing happened in this land. I really don't know why the French are dealing with this so much. Do they really have so much spare time?"

Armenian quest for lost orphans
01 Aug 05 |  Europe
Armenia remembers 1915 killings
24 Apr 05 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
09 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Armenia
10 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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