The Constitutional Council, France’s highest court, will soon issue a ruling with significant implications for how we think about free speech, violence, and collective memory. The ruling, due by the end of February, will determine whether French lawmakers can criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Legislation to this effect passed the French National Assembly in December 2011 and the Senate just last month, but the Council agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the provision after inquiries from dozens of parliamentarians. President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated that he will sign the bill into law if and when it reaches his desk, but he cannot do so until the court announces its decision. The geopolitical implications of this ruling are potentially far-reaching, for it may decisively shape Turkey’s relationship with the European Union and other states in the Middle East. But the ruling’s cultural and philosophical ramifications are significant as well, for they raise important questions about public discourse and collective memory not simply within but also across national boundaries.
The bill that would criminalize Armenian genocide denial was introduced in the National Assembly by Valérie Boyer, a parliamentarian from Marseilles who is affiliated, like Sarkozy, with the center-right Union for a Popular Movement. It would require a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 Euros (approximately $59,000) for “those who have praised, denied, or roughly and publicly downplayed genocidal crimes, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.” Significantly, the legislation does not specifically mention the mass killings of Armenians, but the only other instance of genocide recognized by the French government is the Holocaust, and its denial is already defined as a criminal act under another law. Despite the bill’s generic formulation, then, its effective point of reference is rather targeted.
Members of the French opposition have charged that the bill constitutes a cynical effort to curry favor with the country’s sizable Armenian population in advance of this spring’s presidential elections. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, meanwhile, has opposed the legislation because he believes it will hinder efforts to maintain Turkish cooperation on urgent matters of state, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the ongoing government crackdown in Syria.
But the bill’s proponents deny that they have any ulterior motives in either the national or international arena: Boyer insists that genocide is a general human concern that stands “over and above politics,” while Sarkozy asserts that the bill is in “no way aimed at any state or people in particular.” In this respect, the legislation and its overt rationale are consistent with an important strand of the French republican tradition, one that equates the nation and polity with a commitment to universal principles.
Given the state’s ideological position, it should come as no surprise that Turkish responses to the legislation have been hostile. The national government, led by the center-right Justice and Development Party, has suspended many of Turkey’s diplomatic, economic, and military relations with France, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dismissed the bill as an instance of “evident discrimination, racism, and massacre of free speech.” In addition, Erdoğan has accused France of its own unacknowledged genocide during the era of colonial rule in Algeria, while other lawmakers have insisted that France has failed to confront its unseemly role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Far from regarding the legislation as a universalist condemnation of genocide and genocide denial, then, Turkish state officials have treated it as a direct attack on their national self-regard, and they have been quick to accuse the French government of a pernicious double standard: Sarkozy and his colleagues want Turkey to reckon with its burdened past when France has not scrutinized its own violent (post)colonial history.
On the one hand, I sympathize with the bill’s impulse to engage with past instances of violence. Remembrance of traumatic pasts is not a zero-sum game: attention to one instance of collective violence, such as the murder, deportation, and starvation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, does not prevent or preclude attention to others, such as the assault, torture, and killing that accompanied French colonial domination in Algeria. In fact, as Michael Rothberg suggests, the remembrance of past violence across national and/or imperial contexts “has the potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice.”
On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the premise that certain forms of public discourse, even those associated with the denial of genocide, should be prohibited by law. I am too committed to liberal thinking to believe that this kind of restriction on free public speech is acceptable, and I have my doubts that it will actually encourage a reasoned understanding—and condemnation—of collective violence in the past, present, and future.
In particular, I am very concerned that this legislation, if it indeed becomes law, will have a chilling effect on ongoing discussion and debate in Turkey.
Turkish state and public institutions have grown a bit more receptive to Kurdish grievances over the past decade, and in November 2011 Prime Minister Erdoğan took the remarkable step of apologizing for army and air force attacks that killed nearly 14,000 Kurds in Dersim (now known as Tunceli) from 1936 to 1939. To be sure, Erdoğan issued this apology as police and military personnel were detaining hundreds if not thousands of Kurdish activists in the state’s renewed counterinsurgency campaign. But we should not neglect the fact that such a pronouncement would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. How ready will Erdoğan’s government be to acknowledge other elements of Turkey’s fraught past if France criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide? Not very, I suspect.
In the end, then, I support concerted public engagement with the nature and extent of the Armenian genocide in France, Turkey, and elsewhere. Precisely for this reason, however, I also oppose the criminalization of Armenian genocide denial.
For more discussion of the transnational politics of memory, I highly recommend Michael Rothberg’s book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).
- Jeff Jurgens