ISTANBUL // France plans to make it illegal to deny that Armenians were victims of a genocide by Turks during the First World War - a move being protested against by the Turkish government.
But critics say these objections are out of step with a growing willingness by Turkish society to address the genocide question.
"Turkish governments simply don't know how to deal with this issue," said Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul and a member of a group of Turkish intellectuals calling on their country to face its past. "Civil society is way ahead of the state on this," he said yesterday.
The bill, scheduled to come before the French National Assembly on Thursday, outlines a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine of €45,000 (Dh 215,300) for anyone in France who convicted of publicly denying the genocide.
Armenia, several western countries as well as some international experts say that the Ottoman Armenians became the victims of genocide in the final phase of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and that up to 1.5 million members of that Christian minority were killed in massacres and death marches. The Turkish state rejects the term genocide and says the deaths were the result of a relocation effort under wartime conditions and that many Muslim Turks were killed by Armenian militias.
France, which has a large population of Armenian descent and is facing presidential elections next year, recognised the killings as genocide in 2001. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has in the past promised his country's Armenian community to support a law criminalising its denial.
Turkey has protested against several bills by western countries, like France and Switzerland, condemning the Armenian genocide in the past, and the bill in Paris is no exception. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has warned of "irreparable" damage to Turkish-French ties if the bill is passed. An adoption of the bill would cause serious consequences in political, economic and cultural ties, Mr Erdogan warned in a letter to Mr Sarkozy, according to the Turkish Anadolu news agency.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, said on Sunday that an adoption of the genocide bill would trigger a counter-initiative by Turkey to draw attention to French misdeeds in former colonies. Engin Solakoglu, the Turkish ambassador to Paris, told Agence-France Presse he expected to be recalled to Ankara for consultations if the bill is passed.
Turkish officials also noted that the vote in Paris was scheduled to take place on the anniversary of the death of a Turkish diplomat who was killed by Armenian militants seeking revenge for the Turkish massacres. Yilmaz Colpan, a diplomat at the Turkish embassy in Paris, was shot in the French capital on December 22, 1979.
"I hope this is just a bad coincidence" as opposed to a deliberate insult to Turkey, a Turkish diplomat said about the timing of the vote in Paris.
Volkan Bozkir, a member of parliament in Ankara, travelled to Paris to convince French lawmakers to cancel the vote. Turkish business leaders also went to France to warn of consequences for economic relations, should the bill pass.
But there were few signs that reactions would go beyond strong criticism and the recall of the ambassador. Mehmet Simsek, the finance minister, told parliament that Turkey would not launch a boycott of French goods in retaliation for the genocide bill. With nearly 1,000 French companies doing business in Turkey and a bilateral trade that reached €11.6bn last year, Turkish businessmen are also unlikely to call for a boycott.
Rifat Hisarciklioglu, the head of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), told AFP that "French companies are among our members and we also protect their interests".
That restraint differs sharply from the situation from a few years ago when Turkish intellectuals were put on trial in Istanbul for saying Armenians died in a genocide and, in Istanbul, Turkish extremists killed Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist calling for reconciliation between the two countries.
Since then, the issue has been more widely debated at academic conferences and other panels, a development furthered by a strengthening of laws guaranteeing free speech, passed under Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union.
Alper Gormus, the former editor of a news magazine that was closed in 2009 under pressure from the military after exposing alleged coup plans by officers, told The National that the Turkish public had moved forward but Turkish politicians still lacked the confidence to face the Armenian issue. "I think society is ready for this, but unfortunately politicians do not act upon it," Mr Gormus said.
Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent commentator, wrote in the Posta newspaper last month that the unwillingness to address the Armenian genocide issue was holding Turkey back. "What are we afraid of?" Mr Birand wrote. "We cannot gain anything by denial."
Last month, Mr Erdogan issued a formal apology "in the name of the state" for massacres by state troops against Alevite Kurds in the central Anatolian province of Dersim, later renamed Tunceli, in the 1930s when more than 10,000 civilians were killed. But there has been no similar move in the case of the Armenian massacres.