PARIS (Reuters) - France approved on Monday a bill making it illegal to deny the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide, sparking angry retaliation from Turkey which threatened a “total rupture” of diplomatic ties.
Lawmakers in the upper house (Senate) voted 127 to 86 in favor of the draft law outlawing genocide denial after almost six hours of debate. The lower house had backed it in December, prompting Ankara to cancel all economic, political and military meetings with Paris and recall its ambassador for consultations.
The bill had been made more general so that it outlawed the denial of any genocide, partly in the hope of appeasing the Turks. But Ankara condemned the bill’s approval and said it would take permanent steps against France, a NATO ally.
The bill now goes to President Nicolas Sarkozy to be ratified. Turkey says the bill is a bid by Sarkozy to win the votes of 500,000 ethnic Armenians in France in the two-round presidential vote on April 22 and May 6.
“Turkey is committed to taking all the necessary steps against this unjust disposition which reduces basic human values and public conscience to nothing,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Turkish ambassador in Paris, Tahsin Burcuoglu, said the vote would lead to a “total rupture” of relations between the two countries. Ankara could seek to downgrade its diplomatic presence in Paris.
“When I say total rupture I include things like I can leave definitively,” he told reporters.
“You can also expect that now diplomatic relations will be at the level of charges d’affaires not ambassadors anymore.”
Charge d’affaires is the lowest rank of diplomatic representative recognized under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.
Armenia, backed by many historians and parliaments, says about 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed in what is now eastern Turkey during World War One in a deliberate policy of genocide ordered by the Ottoman government.
The Ottoman empire was dissolved after the end of the war, but successive Turkish governments and the vast majority of Turks feel the charge of genocide is a direct insult to their nation. Ankara argues there was heavy loss of life on both sides during fighting in the area.
“This day will be written in gold not only in the history of friendship between the Armenian and French peoples, but also in the annals of the history of the protection of human rights,” said Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian.
Earlier, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg that Ankara would take new and permanent measures unless the bill was rejected and compared it to the Inquisition in the Middle Ages which was created by the Catholic Church to stamp out heresy.
Arinc said Turkey could take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights.
It mandates a maximum 45,000-euro ($58,000) fine and a year in jail for offenders. France passed a law recognizing the killing of Armenians as genocide in 2001.
About 200 Franco-Turks protested outside the Senate. They waved their French voting cards and banners with slogans including: “It’s not up to politicians to invent history”.
The Socialist Party, which has a majority in the upper house, and Sarkozy’s UMP party, which put forward the bill, backed the legislation.
A non-binding Senate recommendation last week said the law would be unconstitutional and, after weeks of aggressive Turkish lobbying, there were suggestions the outcome would be closer.
Opponents in the Senate said the law would not encourage the Turks to recognize the Armenian genocide and would do nothing to help relations between the two nations.
“It is an unbearable law which calls into question historical research,” said centre-left senator Jacques Mezard.
Sarkozy is expected to ratify the bill before parliament is suspended in February ahead of the presidential election.
It could still be rejected if some 60 lawmakers agree to appeal the decision at the country’s highest court and that body considers the text unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council would have one month to make its decision.
Sarkozy wrote to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan last week saying the bill did not single out any country and that Paris was aware of the “suffering endured by the Turkish people” during the final years of the Ottoman empire.
European Union candidate Turkey could not impose economic sanctions on France, given its World Trade Organisation membership and customs union accord with Europe.
But the row could cost France state-to-state contracts and would create diplomatic tension as Turkey takes an increasingly influential role in the Middle East.
Additional reporting by Lucien Libert in Paris, Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Daren Butler in Istanbul; editing by Robert Woodward