PARIS // Thousands of Turks from across Europe marched through the French capital on Saturday to denounce a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide.
Turks young and old, waving their country's red flag or wrapped in it, marched to the Senate, where the bill will be debated today after passage in December in the lower house.
They carried banners reading "No to Sarkozy Shame Law", "History for Historians, Politics for Politicians" and other slogans denouncing an alleged bid by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy to "fish for votes" among French Armenians before the two-round presidential elections in April and May.
An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France.
The measure would make it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks constituted genocide. It sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of €45,000 (Dh216,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimise" the killings - putting such action on par with denial of the Holocaust.
France formally recognised the 1915 killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone refuting that.
Even though the killings happened nearly 100 years ago, the issue remains an emotional one for Armenians who lost loved ones and for Turks who see a challenge to their national honour.
An irate Turkey briefly recalled its ambassador to France and suspended military, economic and political ties.
"Politicians who haven't read an article on this say there was a genocide," said Beyhan Yildirim, 35, a demonstrator from Berlin. He was among those bussed into Paris from Germany and elsewhere for the march. Scores of buses lined the streets of southern Paris where the march began.
Armenians plan a demonstration near the Senate today before the debate and vote.
It was unclear whether the measure would pass as easily as it did in the National Assembly, the lower but more powerful house.
The Senate is controlled by the rival Socialists who had earlier backed the bill. However, the Senate Commission on Laws voted against its passage last week, saying the measure risks violating constitutional protections including freedom of speech. The question is whether the Socialists will heed the recommendations, if only because the issue is becoming an electoral hot potato.
Compromising freedom of expression in France, considered the cradle of human rights, has been a key argument of the Turkish government against the measure.
It is unclear whether legislators in the National Assembly had an inkling that their vote giving the green light to the bill would trigger a diplomatic dispute. There appeared to be fewer than 100 present for the December 22 vote - out of 577.
Fadime Ertugrul-Tastan, the deputy mayor of the Normandy town of Herouville, was among those demonstrating on Saturday, wearing the blue, white and red sash of French officials.
She said her family hailed from Kars, near the Armenian border, and her grandparents were killed by Armenians.
"I am here to honour their memory," she said, adding, "There was no genocide because we were in a period of war."