I am quite mad about this. Pissed off in fact. The French National Assembly has just passed a bill that criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide. If the law enters into force, anyone violating it risks one year in prison and a fine of €45,000. Turkey is enraged, not surprisingly, has recalled its ambassador in Paris, and is threatening all sorts of retaliatory action (voilà the headline in Le Monde dated today: “La Turquie menace la France de sa colère”). Now these are two countries I know and love but I have no sympathy for either in this affair. Or, I should say, I have no sympathy for the Turks but even less than no sympathy for France. When it comes to this particular issue, I have total antipathy for the French (N.B. as a French citizen I have a right to say anything I please on this otherwise lovely country). The Turks may be a pain, with their hypersensitivity to what Europeans say about them, hysterical nationalism, and extreme difficulty in confronting the many dark episodes of their past. But all that is the Turks’ affair. The problem here is with France.
There are five specific problems with the bill. The first is the very idea that speech should be criminalized. The current bill is an extension of two “memorial laws”: the 1990 Loi Gayssot, that outlaws denial of crimes against humanity, and the 2001 law recognizing, in the name of the French state, the Armenian genocide. The Gayssot law, which has been mainly used to criminalize Holocaust negationism, is uncontroversial in France and supported across the board by the left and right (minus the Front National). As a First Amendment purist, I find both laws unacceptable and liberticide (i.e. liberty-killing). No further explanation is necessary, not for an American at least. I can accept that France, for reasons having to do with its recent history, would ban public displays of the swastika. But for a mature democracy to proscribe speech of a political nature is inadmissible. Period. In addition to being liberticide such laws engender the inevitable perverse consequences, which, in the case of the Gayssot law, was seen most starkly in the 1996 brouhaha over Roger Garaudy’s negationist pamphlet Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israélienne. If it hadn’t been for the lawsuit against him for violating the Gayssot law, the pamphlet would have gone unnoticed by all. But thanks to the Gayssot law and the consequent lawsuit, Garaudy gained major publicity and became a hero in the Arabo-Muslim world—where his pamphlet was translated into numerous languages and sold like hot cakes—, as well as a martyr for the cause of free speech. Great! Moreover, once politicians start interdicting speech, where does it end? E.g. why not a law—if not in France, say in Belgium or Spain, with their laws of universal jurisdiction—criminalizing denial that France committed crimes against humanity in the numerous massacres it carried out in its colonial empire over the years and centuries (and with the inevitable demands for reparation by the successive generations of the victims)? Massacres of which, it may be added, the average French citizen is entirely ignorant. What goes around can come around. E.g. in America, when the
idiots of the Communist Party USA enthusiastically supported the enactment of the Smith Act in 1940—that criminalized advocating the overthrow of the US government by force—, as it was immediately used to prosecute fascists, Nazis, and Trotskyists, but then boomeranged against the Communists with the onset of the Cold War (before being gutted of its substance by the Supreme Court). Clearly the French have not taken to heart the line that Voltaire never said, about disagreeing with what one says but defending to the death one’s right to say it.
The second problem with the bill is that legislators simply have no business legislating on such matters to begin with. This is the most common reproach in France, that interpretations of history should be left up to historians, not politicians, who lack the professional credentials or competence to weigh in on what happened in Asia Minor a century ago—or even in France a half century ago—, let alone pass laws on it. In this vein, two former members of the French Constitutional Council—Georges Vedel and Robert Badinter—affirmed that the 2001 law recognizing the Armenian genocide would have been ruled unconstitutional had it been referred to the said council, as the National Assembly was manifestly exceeding its constitutional mandate in legislating on the question (e.g. see here and here). This would seem second nature but for French politicians it manifestly is not.
The third problem is that the bill implicitly equates the Holocaust with the Armenian genocide. Or maybe I should say the Armenian “genocide.” On the Holocaust—on what the Nazis did to the Jews during WWII—there is no dispute whatever. Historians disagree over interpretations, not over the fact that it happened and that it was a genocide. There is not a single trained historian anywhere, now or in the past, who denies that the Holocaust happened or that the Nazis set out to exterminate the Jews—every last one of them—from 1942 onward. Not a single Holocaust negationist is a historian. Robert Faurisson is an emeritus professor of French literature. Arthur Butz teaches electrical engineering. David Irving was a physics major before dropping out of college. The negationist Journal of Historical Review has never published an article by anyone with a doctorate in history. Professional negationists are professional anti-Semites, not professional historians. All this is uncontroversial, having been fully explicated in the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Deborah Lipstadt, among others.
What happened to the Armenians is another matter. I have personally read enough on the subject to be convinced that a genocide—such as defined by the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention—did indeed occur in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, but there is, in point of fact, a legitimate debate on this. The Turkish state has not helped its case by imposing an official history on the question—not to mention criminalizing denial of its version—or having imposed a blanket taboo on free discussion of the subject until only the past decade. But there are bona fide historians—who are specialists of Turkey and know Turkish, both modern and Ottoman—who do reject the term genocide for what happened to the Armenians in 1915, arguing that there were massacres committed in the context of war but that there was no plan hatched in Istanbul to exterminate the Armenian population, even in part, let alone in full. These historians include Justin McCarthy, who has published much on the question (notably this; also see this); Guenter Lewy, who published this, among his many works of history; and Bernard Lewis, who has not written on the matter but has publicly stated his view—most famously in a 1993 interview in Le Monde—that the Armenians were victims of massacres but not genocide, and for which he was hit by a lawsuit in France. McCarthy and Lewy are in a minority among scholars of the Armenian genocide and their work is hotly contested, but their scholarly credentials and competence are not in doubt. Vigorous debates on their work have unfolded in academic journals—e.g. the Journal of Genocide Research and Middle East Quarterly—and where, it should be said, one of their principal detractors in recent years has been the Turkish historian Taner Akçam, who has famously broken the Turkish taboo in asserting that the Ottomans did indeed commit genocide against the Armenians (e.g. here and here). That McCarthy and Lewy could be legally prosecuted in France for their scholarship is both outrageous and unthinkable. Their work on the Armenians has not been translated into French and published here but now it should be, just to put the inevitable perverse consequences of the new law, should it come into force, to the test.
The fourth problem with the bill is the base electoralist considerations that are driving it. As numerous commentators and pundits have pointed out, a presidential election is taking place in four months time and there are several hundred thousand Armenian-origin voters out there (and who, politicians seem to presume, will put this issue above all others in deciding for whom to cast their ballots). As it happens, ten days prior to Sarkozy’s visit to Armenia in October—where he declared that Turkey “must face up to its history” (doit regarder son histoire en face) and threatened to have enacted a law criminalizing Armenian genocide denial—François Hollande gave a speech in Alfortville, a Paris banlieue with a sizable Armenian-origin community, announcing that if elected president he would push for such a law. Sarko just couldn’t let Hollande outflank him on this; and knowing Sarko he most likely consulted briefly with just one or two aides in his PR staff before making the decision.
Another issue. The existence of an Armenian lobby and of a supposed Armenian electorate has been evoked in a matter-of-fact way for years by commentators in France. This in a polity that has ideologically rejected the notion of ethnicity and that blocs of voters could be defined by sub-national identities (and courted by politicians based on these). One of the most pejorative terms in the French political lexicon is communautarisme, a neologism devoid of social scientific value and for which there is no precise English translation—”communalism” comes the closest but doesn’t really do it—, signifying groups based on ascriptive criteria—mainly ethnic or confessional—that publicly invoke sub-national identities that differentiate them, even symbolically, from the larger French nation and then go on to use these as a resource to advance specific political or social revindications. Communautarisme is regarded as a scourge by French politicians, intellectuals, and media talking heads, and which is seen as afflicting immigrant communities from former colonies on the African continent. When French citizens of Maghrebi or African origin seek to organize on the basis of what Americans call ethnicity or race, they are invariably accused by the political mainstream of engaging in the despised communautarisme. But when Armenians do likewise, it occurs to no one to trot out the communautariste bogeyman. Curieuses mœurs politiques dans ce pays…
The fifth problem with the bill is that it highlights the most unattractive donneur de leçons side of France’s face to the world—a.k.a. French arrogance—, not to mention being so inimical to France’s higher national interests. Given the execrable state of Franco-Turkish relations over the past few years, but which have been improving of late, it is mystifying that Sarkozy would risk poisoning them even more by giving the National Assembly the green light to pass the bill, particularly in view of Turkey’s increasingly important diplomatic role in the region (notably with Syria) and the fact that it is France’s third leading economic partner outside the EU (after the US and China). It makes no sense. Alain Juppé, the foreign policy establishment, and business community have been arguing against the law but to no apparent effect. In backing the bill, Sarkozy has demonstrated yet again that he is not an homme d’Etat. François Hollande, Sarko’s probable successor, has not been acting much like an homme d’Etat either. Triste France.
UPDATE: Claire Berlinski links to my post and adds an important statement by the historian Norman Stone, who will risk legal prosecution in France if the law passed by the National Assembly enters into force.