Voltaire Turning in His Grave Update

I won’t be able to cover this live from the French Senate today because I’m babysitting this afternoon, but here’s the latest from the French press:

The Assembly will consider on Thursday a UMP bill to punish genocide deniers. Angry Turkish demonstrators are protesting in front of the chamber, tensions reigns … Deciphering the positions of both sides … 

“If behind every beard there was wisdom, the goats would all be prophets.” There is no doubt that the Turks must be tempted right now to discuss the Armenian proverb, substituting the word “beard” with “French law.” The National Assembly on Thursday examined a law to punish the deniers of any genocide recognized in French law with a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros. But the only genocide under consideration is that of the Armenians during the First World War (it has long been punishable to deny the Holocaust under international law). This has angered Turkish authorities, leading to an all-out battle with French politicians.

“I get twenty emails a day, Turkish officials or residents in France have ordered me to abandon the law. I feel violated, insulted. This interference in diplomacy by threats is completely archaic,” fumed Valérie Boyer, the UMP MP behind the text. The law, supported by a majority of MPs from both the right and the left, would be adopted later this year. So the Turks have pulled out the stops and joined forces against it. Two policy delegations (majority and opposition) and Turkey’s industrial associations have traveled to France to meet French parliamentarians.

Demonstration outside the Assembly

A thousand people were protesting early Thursday morning before the National Assembly. The protesters gathered on the place of President Edouard Herriot, waving French flags and placards and signs in Turkish saying “History should not serve politics,” “Historical debate is not political debate” and “A country’s history shouldn’t be about fishing for votes.”

The demonstrators, mostly young men whose leaflets were signed by the Coordination Committee of Franco-Turkish Associations in France, are surrounded by double fences, while riot police blocked all access to the National Assembly. 

The majority is already cracking …

Christian Jacob, president of the UMP group in the Assembly, Axel Poniatowski, president of the UMP Committee on Foreign Affairs, Michel Diefenbacher, president of the UMP group of the Franco-Turkish Assembly and even the president of the National Assembly Bernard Accoyer–these delegations knock on doors to try to convince parliament to drop this bill. “They tell us to leave history to historians, and not to confuse the law and politics. According to them, this bill could have serious social consequences in Turkey,” says a source who attended one of the meetings. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened France with heavy trade sanctions. And little by little, their arguments are making headway.

The majority is already cracking. According to the Canard Enchaîné, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has called the bill an “idiocy without a name.” On Wednesday morning, the UMP deputy of Vienna Jean-Pierre Raffarin and UMP senator of Yvelines Gérard Larcher said they were against the law on the airwaves of RTL and Europe 1. The day before, Bernard Accoyer announced his opposition. Fillon himself would not be very excited, said the Canard.

Yet the UMP continues to support the text. Christian Jacob is in favor, as is Nicolas Sarkozy, according to several sources. ”It’s all to try to recover the voices of the Frenco-Armenians” Alain Juppé reportedly said, according to the Canard. Indeed, France has 500,000 Armenian expatriates, to which must be added the tens of thousands of Turkish-Armenians. It’s an important windfall for the presidential election, but even more for the parliamentary elections, which are played out at the local level. Valerie Boyer, for example, represents Bouches-du-Rhone–where the Armenian community has no less than 80,000 expatriates in Marseille alone. 

“The electoral argument does not hold water”

“It’s party politics. Even though it probably will not pass for months, this bill is an election issue. The government put the text on the agenda last week, so that it’s on the agenda  before the election,” offers a member of the majority who is very familiar with the matter. ”But this is ridiculous. The Armenian community is divided in France, it never votes in a block. The Left has gained more from it. No one understands why everyone got carried away about this issue,” he says.  

“The electoral argument doesn’t hold water, because the Left has also spoken about the bill,” said Ara Toranian, editor of the magazine News from Armenia. ”If the majority supports the law and is now proposing it, it’s because Nicolas Sarkozy promised it to the Armenian people by the end of his term,” he says. 

The Canard suggests another possibility. According to a minister quoted by the satirical weekly, the president supports this bill for one reason above all. ”He does it to make Carla happy. Passion makes him do stupid things,” says this source. 

It’s as if, behind the beard of the law, it’s neither wisdom nor politics, nor the hidden history, but … love.

I repeat my commitment: If the bill passes, I’ll be denying the genocide tomorrow morning in France and affirming it tomorrow evening in Turkey (that is, if I haven’t been arrested and the French airport security staff aren’t on strike). Let’s see which country really has a more robust commitment to freedom of expression.

Of course, if France does succeed in criminalizing the discussion, it will in fact succeed only in giving succor to all the natural-born Turkish Jacobins who insist that every advanced democracy criminalizes political speech, it’s just the way things are done. Speaking of that, just yesterday Turkey swept up another several dozen journalists in yet another wave of mass arrests. We know what they’ll say, of course: They haven’t been arrested for journalism, they’ve been arrested for terrorism. Man, all these journalists who moonlight as terrorists, I don’t know how they do it! Terrorism is a demanding, full-time job. Combine that with motherhood, and you’ve really got an impossible superwoman ideal to live up to:

The recent detention of journalists in the ongoing Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) case stirred fury across Turkey yesterday as their colleagues, friends and media groups staged nationwide protests.

“This is a novel type of terrorism called the KCK operations. [They] are trying to silence the press that is presenting the voice of the Kurds. We will be waiting for their release for as long as they remain in custody,” according to a press statement issued yesterday by nearly 20 journalists. 

Not incidentally, I can make a reasonably persuasive case on both sides of the genocide debate, and would surely be able to make an even stronger case were I allowed to discuss it with historians of the period–which is precisely why such debate should never be illegal.