Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

French Vote on Armenian Genocide Adds to Turkey's Growing Anti-EU Sentiment

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

French Vote on Armenian Genocide Adds to Turkey's Growing Anti-EU Sentiment

Article excerpt

WITH THE FRENCH parliament passing in early October a resolution to make denial of the Armenian genocide a crime, the issue of 1915 once again was buried beneath a mass of knee-jerk responses in Turkey.

Protests were held, tricoleur flags were burned. Calls for a boycott of French goods were wheeled out of the nationalist garage, where they had been gathering dust since 2001-the last time the French parliament had intervened in this dispute-and plenty of brave speeches were made.

Yet while the motion in Paris may have been a storm in an electoral teacup likely to be quashed by more sober heads in the Senate and the Presidency-just as it was back in 2001-this time it may not be a case of plus ça change, plus ça la meme chose.

This is because, nowadays, support in Turkey for the European Union-of which France is such an important symbol-has never been more dismal. Illustrative of this was the fact that the resolution was passed just as Turkey was about to be on the receiving end of another annual European Commission report on its progress in EU membership talks. Widespread leaks, and a condemnatory version of the report from the European Parliament, had left little doubt in Turkey that this year's end-of-term grade would have a definite "could do better" ring to it.

Thus the French vote added to a growing feeling on the Turkish street that the EU spends all of its time attacking Turkey rather than helping it.

Some in Istanbul and Ankara also pointed to the bill as illustrative of a perceived double standard in European attitudes toward free speech.

Only a few weeks before the French vote, Europe had condemned Turkey for putting on trial one of its most respected authors, Elif Safak. She had been accused of "insulting Turkishness" under the controversial Article 30 of the revised Turkish criminal code-the same article used unsuccessfully last December to try to prosecute recent Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

At a hearing attended by many European Union representatives anxious to establish their free expression credentials, the Safak case also was dismissed. But, some columnists asked, how come the Europeans condemned Turkey for gagging free speech under Article 30 while at the same time they were busy gagging free speech over the Armenian genocide?

The effect of the French parliament's decision, therefore, was to create another sense of grievance in Turkey against the Europeans. This also plays to a central part of the Turkish national narrative-that of the persecuted Turks, forced back into Anatolia via massive bouts of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

Indeed, in this narrative, which continues to be spread at school and beyond in Turkey, the Armenians themselves come as essentially the last straw. Even in Anatolia, the nationalists say, they wanted to push us out-"they," in this case, being the Armenians, erstwhile citizens of the same Ottoman Empire, who lived in Anatolia and are then portrayed as fifth columnists of the Europeans and the Russians. This allows the nationalists to then claim that it was the Turks, not the Armenians, who were the victims in 1915.

Challenging this view not only has long been highly dangerous for Turks, but has only recently been open to debate at all. Whether the French parliament's effective closing of the issue to discussion is at all useful in encouraging openness elsewhere remains to be seen, but the French vote was largely seen as a setback by those in Turkey trying to bring the events of 1915 out into the open.

At the same time, it also clearly is a setback for the pro-EU camp in Ankara, which recently has been under fairly constant shellfire over foreign policy in particular, and over the perennial Kurdish issue as well. …

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