Furious Turks hit back after French MPs pass bill on Armenia ‘genocide’

Turkey has suspended economic and political activities with France after MPs in Paris passed a bill to make it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks amounted to genocide.

Turkey’s government recalled its ambassador and halted official contacts, including some military co-operation, after the bill was comfortably passed France’s lower house.

The measures announced by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan included suspending joint military manoeuvres and restricting French military flights.

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“We are recalling our ambassador in Paris to Ankara for consultations,” Mr Erdogan said. “As of now, we are cancelling bilateral level political, economic and military activities,” he added.

“We are suspending all kinds of political consultations with France” and “bilateral military co-operation, joint manoeuvres are cancelled as of now”.

It was clear long before the vote, which passed easily without a formal vote, that France was on a collision course with Turkey.

Ankara had threatened to remove its ambassador if French MPs did not desist and warned of “grave consequences” to political and economic ties.

The bill’s author, Valerie Boyer from France’s ruling UMP party, said she was “shocked” by Turkey’s reaction.

She said: “It is inspired by European law, which says that the people who deny the existence of the genocides must be sanctioned.”

Turkey vehemently rejects the term “genocide” for the mass killings of Armenians during the First World War, saying the issue should be left to historians, although more than 20 states around the world and the European Parliament have formally recognised the deaths as genocide.

Turkey has argued that France is damaging freedom of expression and that President Nicolas Sarkozy is looking to win supporters ahead of April’s presidential elections. An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France and many have pressed to raise the legal statute regarding the massacres to the same level as the Holocaust by punishing denial of genocide.

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“We must not mix freedom of opinion with propaganda,” a conservative MP, Patrick Devedjian, who is of Armenian origin, said in parliament.

France formally recognised the killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone denying it. The bill sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of €45,000 (£37,500) for those who deny or “outrageously minimise” the killings by Ottoman Turks, putting such action on a par with denial of the Holocaust.

“Our ancestors can finally rest in peace,” said 75-year-old Maurice Delighazarian, who grandparents were among those killed, said standing outside France’s National Assembly.

“Laws voted in this chamber cannot be dictated by Ankara,” said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, an MP from the New Centre party, ahead of the vote.

French authorities have stressed the importance of bilateral ties with Turkey and the key role it plays in sensitive strategic issues as a member of Nato, in Syria and Afghanistan.

However, Mr Sarkozy has long opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, which has put a constant strain on the two nations’ ties.

Turkish authorities have weighed in with caustic remarks about France’s past. Mr Erdogan has recalled France’s colonial history in Algeria and a 1945 massacre there, as well as its role in Rwanda, where some have claimed a French role in the 1994 genocide.

“Those who do want to see genocide should turn around and look at their own dirty and bloody history,” the prime minister has said.