French lawmakers appealed to their country’s highest court on Tuesday to overturn a law that makes it illegal to deny that the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide.
The move raises the possibility that the law, which sparked an angry reaction in Turkey and equally passionate support from the Armenian Diaspora around the world, will be dismissed as unconstitutional.
The legislation, which received final parliamentary approval on Jan. 23 and was sent to President Nicolas Sarkozy for ratification, prompted Ankara to cancel all economic, political and military meetings with Paris.
But many of those who supported the bill appeared to have second thoughts. More than 130 French lawmakers from across the political divide in both the National Assembly and the Senate who had originally voted against the bill, appealed to the Constitutional Council for a ruling.
The court has one month to make its decision.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who branded the legislation “discriminatory and racist,” thanked the lawmakers who opposed it.
“On behalf of my country, I am declaring our heartfelt gratitude to the senators and deputies who gave their signatures,” he said. “I believe they have done what needed to be done.”
The lawmakers argued in their appeal that the event was still the subject of historical contention, and therefore the legislation infringed on the freedoms of historians, analysts and others to debate it, ultimately violating the right to free speech.
They insisted their move did not aim to deny “the suffering of our compatriots of Armenian origin and of all Armenians across the world.”
Last week, Mr. Erdogan said Turkey was in a “period of patience” as it considered what measures to take if the bill became law.
France is Turkey’s fifth biggest export market and sixth biggest supplier of imports of goods and services, and bilateral trade was $13.5-billion in the first 10 months of last year.
“French companies in Turkey ... wanted the Constitutional Council to be involved because it’s the best solution to calm the Turks,” said Dorothee Schmid, head of the Turkish program at the French Foreign Relations Institute in Paris.
“The Turkish government accused the French government of being racist and discriminatory,” she added, “yet this matter stems from the inability of the Turks to handle the genocide case. Now there is a discussion on it.”
As a member of NATO and the World Trade Organisation, Turkey may be limited in its response by its international obligations. However, media reports have speculated about possible measures that it might take against France.
These included recalling the Turkish ambassador in Paris and expelling the French ambassador in Ankara, thus reducing diplomatic ties to chargée d’affaires level, and closing Turkish airspace and waters to French military aircraft and vessels.
Some in mostly Muslim Turkey accuse President Sarkozy of trying to win the votes of the estimated 500,000 ethnic Armenians living in France in the two-round presidential vote on April 22 and May 6. France’s Socialist Party, which has a majority in the upper house, and Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP party, which put forward the bill, supported the legislation.
Armenia, backed by many historians and parliaments, says about 1.5-million Christian Armenians were killed in what is now eastern Turkey during the First World War 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 many Turks feel the charge of genocide is a direct insult to their nation They say the deaths occurred during a military conflict, and that there was heavy loss of life on both sides during fighting in the area.