By Harut Sassounian
Both Houses of the French Legislature have once again adopted a law that penalizes the denial of genocides recognized by French or international courts, or the denial, minimization or extreme trivialization of other genocides or Crimes Against Humanity, if accompanied by incitement to violence or hatred. The French Senate approved the new law by a vote of 156 to 146 on October 14, following the Parliament’s approval by a vote of 305-157 on July 6. The law will go into effect after Pres. François Hollande signs it, which he is committed to do.
The question now is whether the Constitutional Council of France will approve the proposed law or find it unconstitutional, as it did back in 2012, arguing that it violated freedom of speech. Here is the background of this tortuous saga:
The French Parliament first recognized the Armenian Genocide on May 29, 1998, followed by the Senate on Nov. 7, 2000. However, due to intervening elections between the two votes, the Parliament had to approve it a second time, which it did on January 18, 2001, declaring that “France publicly recognizes the Armenian Genocide of 1915.” Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and Pres. Jacques Chirac signed the legislature’s recognition into law on January 29, 2001. In response, the Turkish government withdrew its Ambassador from Paris.
Given the fact that several members of the French media and some Turks in France and their cohorts continued to deny the Armenian Genocide, the French-Armenian community sought to penalize the denialists, as was the case with the Jewish Holocaust. French-Armenians demanded equal protection under the law, rightfully contending that there should be no discrimination among genocide victims!
After 10 years of lobbying, French Armenians and their supporters finally succeeded in having the Parliament adopt a proposed law on Dec. 22, 2011 which set a penalty of a year in prison and $50,000 fine for anyone denying the Armenian Genocide. The Senate followed suit on January 23, 2012, prompting Turkey once again to withdraw its Ambassador from Paris!
The French Constitutional Council decided on Feb. 28, 2012, that the proposed law was unconstitutional as it violated freedom of speech. The Council’s decision was highly scandalous. Several of its 11 members had serious conflicts of interest because their families had business ties to Turkey or had opposed this bill during their years in the legislature! Most amazingly, one of Council members was on the Board of the Bosphorus Institute, a Turkish Think Tank that was lobbying against this law! After a French newspaper exposed these unethical affiliations, two members of the Council recused themselves from the case.
The current Constitutional Council is now composed of 10 members — three are leftovers from the 2012 Council that rejected a similar law. Fortunately, several of the new members are more favorably disposed toward the proposed legislation.
More importantly, the newly adopted law, called “Equality and Citizenship,” is considerably different from the 2012 version. President Hollande along with the legislature and the French-Armenian community went to great lengths to ensure that the new language complies with the right to free speech.
Although the freedom of expression is a cherished right in all democracies, there are several important factors that must be kept in mind:
1) Freedom of speech is more of an absolute right in the United States than in Europe where there are many laws that restrict it. Even in the U.S., there are some limitations on one’s ability to say or write whatever one pleases, such as libel and defamation laws.
2) In countries where denial of the Jewish Holocaust is banned, so should denial of all other genocides, including the Armenian Genocide. No double standard among Genocide victims!
3) Since France has a law that recognizes the Armenian Genocide, there should be a penalty for violating it, as is the case with all laws!
4) Anti-denial laws would prevent Turkey from exporting its denialist policies to other countries.
5) In democratic France, it is now against the law to lie about the Armenian Genocide, while in despotic Turkey it is against the law to tell the truth!