basic misunderstandings in discussion of French genocide denial ban

I want to highlight the basic (accidental and deliberate) misunderstandings in discussion of the French ban on denial of crimes against humanity. I want to write a “readable” blog post, though (unlike its tl;dr predecessors), so there is a five-point correction of the basic misunderstandings, then a wince-inducingly-long demonstration of my claims.

After this, I am back to destruction and looting.


Much of the public discussion of the French ban presents it as: a ban on denial of the Armenian Genocide specifically; a way for one political party or another to win Armenian (or right-wing) votes in French elections; thus, a French act that provokes a Turkish response; and an inconsistent violation of free speech.  However…

First, the 2001 recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the 2006 ban on denial of the Armenian Genocide and the 2011 ban on denial of crimes against humanity were not party-political issues; they all received cross-party support in free votes of conscience; so, it was impossible for any party to win any votes.

Furthermore, the significance of the allegedly-targeted minority vote was over-rated anyway; and better targets for French campaigning were not addressed, which suggests that French politicians were not deciding the targeting.  Turkish denial makes the Armenian Genocide the key issue of international discussion.

Second, the 2011 ban on denial of crimes against humanity was precisely that – a ban on denial of any recognised crime against humanity, not only of the Armenian Genocide.

Third, the alleged coincidences of parliamentary votes on the bills, and parliamentary and presidential elections were created by: mis-stating dates of votes, blurring the dates with “precisely vague” terms, and excluding inconvenient events.  Moreover, there have been changes in the results of French votes, but not in the content of the discussion, which again suggests that French politics do not drive the problem.

Fourth, not only do the dates of the French parliamentary votes on the bills coincide equally well with Turkish elections; but also, Armenian Genocide denial is central to Turkish identity and the politics of everyday life.  Turkish politicians do not only have an incentive to make political capital out of denial; they have a need to do so, which again suggests that Turkish politics drive the problem.

Fifth, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) have both affirmed that the French laws do not violate freedom of speech; and the UNHRC actually recommended that France standardise its laws against incitement to hatred, as it does with the law against denialism.

Electoral politics

In a previous post, I argued that a free country cannot reject a good law because an unfree country has imposed a bad law. I would add that a country cannot reject a good law because someone can make political capital out of that law.

There is a widespread understanding that the ban is a piece of French electoral politics, an appeal to Armenian French citizens (or right-wing voters); but that seems mistaken.

The Armenian voting bloc

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has found a ‘political agenda‘ behind the law. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has called it an ‘electoral investment [seçim yatırımı]’ (video).  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy of ‘fanning hatred of Muslims and Turks for electoral gains‘, trying to get ‘votes out of hatred of Turkey’.(1) Algerian-French presidential candidate Rachid Nekkaz has alleged that President Sarkozy’s ‘only aim… is to capture the votes of the 500,000 Armenians in France’.

Sometimes it has been more or less subtly suggested that the law is an appeal to Armenian voters, for example by Robert Marquand in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM); by Timothy Garton Ash on Comment is Free (CiF); by Dr. Esther Benbassa in Libération; and by the Telegraph.

Sometimes the allegation has been accepted as a political reality, as it was by Jonathan Marcus on the BBC. Often it has been mentioned, unchallenged and unquestioned, as it was by Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Hürriyet Daily News; the BBC; Tony Todd on France 24; the Guardian; İpek Yezdani in Hürriyet Daily News; Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, twice; the New York Times (NYT); Bruce Crumley in Time; and Today’s Zaman.

The right-wing vote

Prof. Richard Falk and Prof. Hilal Elver have called the law a ‘rather blatant Sarkozy bid for the votes of the Le Pen rightists’ as well as ‘the French minority of Armenian descent’ on al Jazeera and Prof. Falk’s blog Citizen Pilgrimage, and in Foreign Policy Journal and Sunday’s Zaman/Today’s Zaman. Prof. Çınar Özen argued that Sarkozy’s target was ‘right-wing voters‘, ‘not half a million Armenians’.

However, it may prove challenging to win the votes of the French right wing by affirming the illegality of Holocaust denial

French electoral appeal

Dismissing the bills as vote-winners partly depends upon the coincidence of the parliamentary debates and the national elections. For instance, historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash found that

There is a remarkable correlation between the appearance of such proposals in the French parliament and the proximity of national elections, in which some half a million voters of Armenian origin play a significant part. What happened to the Armenians was officially recognised as genocide in French law in December 2001, just before the presidential and parliamentary elections. A bill similar to this one was passed in the lower house in 2006 (but rejected by the upper) in the runup to the elections of 2007. And what’s happening this year? Yes, elections.

Journalist Robert Marquand observed that,

In 2001, it was just before elections that France recognized the Armenian genocide. In 2006, just before elections, French politicians nearly passed a five-year jail term for denying the genocide. Now, with the 2012 vote around the corner – voila! – a new law to jail Armenian deniers has taken shape.

These theories require minor clarifications. The bill for recognition of the Armenian Genocide had been approved by both chambers of the French parliament and signed by the president by January 2001, not December 2001; so it became law fifteen months before the start of the April-May 2002 presidential election, and seventeen months before the June 2002 National Assembly election. And once that first link is broken, the rest appear much weaker.

The electoral theories exclude discussions of the Armenian Genocide that did not coincide with elections (not even within a year-and-a-half of them).  For example, in another non-election year (2004), France reminded Turkey of its ‘duty to remember’ the ‘tragedy‘ of the Armenians’ deaths; Turkey quietly declined.

Otherwise, the National Assembly approved the bill on denial of the Armenian Genocide in October 2006, still seven months before the 2007 elections began. And as Garton Ash and Marquand grudgingly admit, the Senate finally rejected the bill in May 2011, four months before its own September 2011 election.  (Apparently, no Armenians or right-wingers vote in Senate elections…)

In the end, the National Assembly approved the bill on denial of crimes against humanity last month, and the Senate approved it this month, four months before the 2012 elections will begin; but they could not have processed the 2011 bill much earlier, because the 2006 bill was still under consideration.  (Seemingly, the Senate has accepted the need to appeal for the Armenian votes it spurned eight months ago.)

Despite the Turkish government and others alleging an appeal to an Armenian French voting bloc, and despite the allegation being repeated everywhere as fact, any supposed Armenian voting bloc is irrelevant, because the law has cross-party support. (Both the original 2006 and the revised 2011 bill had support from across the political spectrum.)(2)

Turkish political appeal

At the same time as presuming that the denial of the Armenian Genocide is an issue that could swing an election in France, these theories somehow ignore the possibility that the issue could affect an election in Turkey (which also had elections in 2002 and 2007, and which will also have presidential elections in 2012).  Armenian Genocide denial is central to Turkish identity, and is an issue in everyday life, let alone elections.  Turkish politicians make political capital out of the French bills.

Furthermore, there is an even more basic misunderstanding of the law; and that misunderstanding is reinforced by, and contributes to, Turkey’s opposition to the law.

It’s not all about the Armenians

Admittedly, the name of the bill, ‘concerning [European] community law on the fight against racism and punishing the denial of the Armenian Genocide'(3), does not help matters.

But evidently, Armenian Studies Professor Theo van Lint did not read the bill. Nonetheless, he still criticised it:

it would not be evenhanded to penalize the denial of the “Armenian genocide” and leave denials of other genocides unpunished. He argues it is unacceptable for France to take such a step when it itself has questions to answer about its colonial past. “France should of course face its own colonial past, as should all countries that have issues to solve regarding their past.”

Naturally, (Turkish government-aligned) Today’s Zaman did not correct Prof. van Lint. (Profs. Falk and Elver also presented it as a law against denial of the Armenian Genocide specifically.)

Despite the bill citing the existing Gayssot Law against denial of the Nazi Holocaust (and French collaboration in it); despite the bill highlighting the inconsistency of criminalising denial of the Holocaust but not, for example, denial of the Armenian Genocide or the Atlantic slave trade; despite the bill explaining its intention to criminalise denial of any crime against humanity ‘as defined [by] but not limited to'(4) French law and the Statute of the International Criminal Court, nearly all public discussion of the law has been about denial of Ottoman crimes against Armenians (and the rest has been about denial of French crimes against Algerians).

Turkish denial drives international discussion

As I noted when France passed the 2011 bill, the former slave-trading states did not protest against their defamation. That is why much international discussion of the bill did not recognise, or even realise, that it banned the denial of the Atlantic slave trade.

Similarly, if it were a French electoral campaign trick, the logical voting bloc would not be the half-a-million Armenian French voters; and it would not be the one-to-four million voters for the far-right-wing National Front(5), because the bill affirmed that Holocaust denial was a criminal incitement to hatred. The 2011 bill’s logical voting bloc would be the four million French citizens who are members of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian communities that suffered crimes against humanity committed by France; but they remained quiet.

Instead, Turkey denied the genocide; Prime Minister Erdoğan directed France to ‘look at its own “dirty and bloody history” in Algeria and Rwanda’; and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu repeatedly told France to confront its own history. Thus, Turkish denial drove international discussion to focus on the Armenian Genocide.

Erdoğan warned that Turkey would tell the world about ‘French atrocities that have been forgotten‘; but they are not forgotten.  Indeed, the denial or minimisation of French atrocities is illegal under French law.  One of the reasons the 2011 bill passed was because it standardised various hate crimes’ definition and punishment.

Standardising existing law

The 2006 bill was tabled by Socialists; the 2011 bill was tabled by Conservatives. The disappointingly bland reality of a law against incitement to hatred, which has cross-party support, is that it probably is a matter of standardising existing law.

Under various laws, French writers and publishers have been punished for denying/minimising French complicity in the Nazi Holocaust; and for excusing/justifying French war crimes in Algeria. Although there have been incorrect applications, both the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) have validated French law.

The UNHRC validated the French ban on Holocaust denial because ‘the denial of the existence of the Holocaust [is] the principal vehicle for anti-semitism’. In fact, explaining their decisions, the UNHRC’s judges explicitly advised France ‘to replace the Act [either] with a specific legislation prohibiting well-defined acts of anti-semitism or with a provision of the criminal code protecting the rights or reputations of others in general‘.  The judges recommended this because

statements that do not meet the strict legal criteria of incitement can be shown to constitute part of a pattern of incitement against a given racial, religious or national group, or where those interested in spreading hostility and hatred adopt sophisticated forms of speech that are not punishable under the law against racial incitement.

Just like Holocaust denial, Armenian Genocide denial is a sophisticated, insidious incitement to hatred. France needed to standardise its existing law, in order to both protect vulnerable minorities’ rights, and prevent inconsistencies and injustices in the application of law.

Taner Akçam

It’s not as joyously sarcastic as Burak Bekdil’s article the other week; but to reward anyone who made it to the end of the post, here’s a good interview with a Turkish scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Prof. Taner Akçam, discussing why Genocide Recognition is About Justice, Not Freedom of Thought.


1: Erdoğan has also phrased his accusations against Sarkozy as trying ‘to increase votes for the personal gain of a presidential election, using fear of Turkey and Islamophobia’, ‘to win elections over hostility towards Turks and Muslims’.

2: Obviously, the first problem with the allegation is that it presumes the 500,000-member Armenian-French community is a monolithic, single-issue voting bloc.

The ugly issue of voting blocs is confused even more by even more idiotic claims/threatening behaviour. Erdoğan pointed out to Sarkozy that ‘living in France are not only 500,000 Armenians, but also 500,000 Turks‘. According to Prof. Jørgen Nielsen, Prof. Samim Akgönül and Dr. Ahmet Alibašić, there are at least 450,000 Turks in France; and, more recently, journalist Saim Orhan reported between 500,000 and 600,000.

By that logic, if there were an Armenian voting bloc, there would also be a Turkish voting bloc, and they would cancel each other out. However, Reuters/the Chicago Tribune noted that ‘far fewer of the [uncounted] Turks ha[d] voting rights‘ than the ‘500,000 Armenians’; in 2008, linguist Dr. Mehmet-Ali Akıncı said there were only 15,000 Turkish-French citizens.  So why did Erdoğan mention the 500,000 Turkish residents?  Was it a threat of mass discontent and collective disobedience?

(Press TV claimed that the ‘400,000-strong Turkish community ha[d] almost as many votes’ as the 500,000-strong Armenian community, but the Turkish-French voters ‘ha[d] already turned against Sarkozy for his consistently antagonistic policies towards Muslims‘. However, it used the number of Turkish residents in France, not the number of Turkish-French citizens (and it used out-of-date numbers for the Turkish residents); and the Iranian state-run TV channel is obviously politically biased in its interpretation of data and community opinion.)

3: Proposition de Loi Portant Transposition du Droit Communautaire sur la Lutte Contre le Racisme et Réprimant la Contestation de l’Existence du Génocide Arménien.

4: ‘tels qu’ils sont définis [par] de façon non exclusive’.

5: le Front National (FN).

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