Turkey Freezes Relations With France Over Armenian Genocide Bill

Experts weigh in on the tense political situation.

ByABC News
December 24, 2011, 4:38 PM

Dec. 25, 2011 — -- Ties between France and Turkey are unraveling after the French National Assembly passed a bill making it a crime to deny the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, known as the Armenian Genocide.

In reaction to the vote, Turkey froze political and military relations with France, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Thursday.

Since 1990, it has been illegal to deny crimes against humanity in France, specifically the Holocaust. Many have raised concerns that this limits freedom of speech.

"We have an expression in America: Your freedom of speech ends when you yell fire in a crowded theater. There are some things that are just not covered in freedom of speech, the denial of the first genocide of the 20th century clearly falls within that," Mark Geragos, a lawyer who has represented former Rep. Gary Condit, former first brother Roger Clinton, Academy award-winning actress Winona Ryder, pop star Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, told ABC News.

Geragos, an Armenian-American, said it shows a lot of courage on behalf of the French.

"My hope is that this infuses the U.S. Congress with the guts to do the right thing," Geragos said.

The United States has been hesitant to use the word "genocide" in connection with the massacres of 1915-1917, fearing the political repercussions.

"France and 21 other countries have already shown that there's no political problem in passing official statements about the Armenian Genocide. France has taken it to another level with this law," Peter Balakian, a writer and scholar of genocide at Colgate University and a New York Times bestselling author, told ABC News.

Balakian said he is not a supporter of laws that restrict freedom of speech, but he notes that in some extreme cases, some societies find it necessary to pass such laws.

"The lesson that can be learned from this is that when there are decades of aggressive, state-planned denialist propaganda as there is with Turkey, to cover up its history, absolve itself of responsibility and to erase the moral reality of the Armenian Genocide, some societies, like France, feel such laws are ethically important as a redress to such denial," Balakian said.

Erdogan said he would be suspending all kinds of political consultations with France and cancelled all upcoming meetings and conferences between the two countries.

"People will not forgive those who distort history, or use history as a tool for political exploitation," he said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Friday that he had asked Turkish authorities not to "overeact," calling their declarations "excessive."

Geragos said it would be an apt description to characterize Turkey as an upset, spoiled child.

"They stomp their feet, they take their toys and go home. What I think France understands more than most countries is that this is a joke. The U.S. doesn't get army bases in Turkey without any kind of trade off -- one of the greatest things for deficit reduction would be if Turkey did take their toys and go pound in the sand."

Some question the intentions of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election in April despite his dwindling popularity. France has Europe's largest Armenian population, with estimates around 500,000.

"I think that any time a politician does anything, it's always looked at skeptically," Geragos said. "Sarkozy has always taken a moral and principle stand. People who claim he's using this as a bargaining chip, I don't buy into that. What's right is right."