Turkey warned yesterday that it would impose permanent sanctions on France as the French Senate passed a bill which would punish with jail and a fine anyone denying the killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide.
"Turkey will continue to implement sanctions so long as this bill remains in motion," the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said before the debate. The Senate passed the bill and it will now be sent to President Nicolas Sarkozy to be signed into law, which he is expected to do before the end of February.
Turkey briefly withdrew its Ambassador to Paris and placed sanctions on economic, political and military co-operation with France when the measure was approved last month by the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly. Under the bill, offenders will be liable to a one-year jail term and a fine of €45,000 ($72,150).
The action has created anger in Turkey where critics denounce the legislation as a cynical attempt by Sarkozy to win the vote of the 500,000-strong French Armenian community before presidential elections this year. "Turkey is no longer the Turkey of 2001," said Davotoglu, emphasising that the country is stronger today than it was when the French Parliament first recognised the Armenian genocide.
In a tea house in the Bayoglu district of Istanbul, an elderly man who gave his name as Ali vehemently denounced Sarkozy. "He plots like the Devil," he said. "He wouldn't even pick up the phone to talk to our President. People do that even in wartime. He should resign as leader of France."
The remaining Armenians in Turkey, believed to number about 70,000, are not optimistic about the Turkish Government ever admitting to the genocide.
At a march last week commemorating the fifth anniversary of the murder of an Armenian-Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink, in 2007, an Armenian woman, Mariam Kalk, said she did not expect any change. "Turkish society is a very silent society. The state will never admit to the Armenian massacre."
Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, said there were three reasons why Turkey could not admit to the genocide. Those who carried it out continued to work for the Government in senior positions. The ethnic cleansing did not stop [when the republic was created] in 1923 and surviving Armenians, who still numbered 300,000, were still being pushed out of Turkey for years afterwards. Thirdly, he said, "we should not forget that the Armenians were often bourgeoisie and their wealth was plundered".
Nevertheless, the Government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown itself more tolerant than any of its predecessors towards Armenians and other Christians in Turkey.
Armenians in Istanbul say they are treated with greater tolerance than five years ago, partly because of general outrage over the murder of Dink.
"Before, Armenians were second-class citizens in Turkey and now they aren't," said Armen Kalk, who marched last week.