This week France passed a bill that criminalizes the Armenian genocide. Deniers of the genocide now face jail sentences and fines up to 45,000 Euros. The aim of this article is not to plunge into a historical debate about the Armenian genocide, I’ll leave that to historians, but rather I want to discuss the context in which France decided to pass the law, and whether it is in a place to do so.
As the international community started to focus more on the concept of human rights, by the end of the 20th century many European countries sought to deal with their ‘dark’ past through formal state apologies or financial compensations for the damages caused. France, however, never dealt with its genocide of the Algerian people.
No bills were passed with regards to this matter, not even a formal apology, forget criminalizing denial of the Algerian genocide. On the contrary, Article 4 of the French Law on Colonialism (2005) states: ” [to] acknowledge and recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa”. Yet what is so positive about the systematic massacre of women, children, the elderly, the burning and pillaging of villages, the forced starvations and the deportation of Algerians? Between 1830 and 1871, during the so called ‘pacification’ of Algeria, thousands of villagers were burned alive on several occasions as they were attempting to flee from the French troops in Sbehas (1844), Dahra (1845), in Ain Maran (1845), all crimes that were never punished. After more than a century the atrocities did not stop as historians suggest more than 1 million Algerians were killed as a result of the War of independence.
Since the very beginning, the French Army in North Africa had a clear moral code. In 1842, Lieutenant-colonel de Montagnac said that, “All populations that do not accept our conditions must be despoiled. Everything must be seized, devastated, without age or sex distinction: grass must not grow any more where the French army has put their foot. Who wants the end wants the means, whatever may say our philanthropists…This is how, my dear friend, we must do war against Arabs: kill all men over the age of fifteen, take all their women and children, load them onto naval vessels, send them to the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In one word, annihilate all that will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs.”
So perhaps when Turkish PM Erdogan refers back to France’s genocide in North Africa as an issue for France to deal with first, he makes a strong point. If France would really care about human rights, would it not at least acknowledge the crimes it committed towards the Algerians and other colonized peoples as a sign of regret just as they did with the Armenians?
What seems to be even more surprising is the time chosen to pass this bill. Although the bill to recognize the genocide dates back to 2001, the French government only decided to criminalize Armenian Genocide denial a few days ago. Is it a coincidence that France has an active Armenian community of 500,000 people and that elections are coming soon? Could Sarkozy be seen to be using this as a means to boost his damaged popularity? It certainly is not related to any developments within the Turkish-Armenian relations. Since 2009 the two countries have been attempting to normalize their relations on a diplomatic level.
In his response to Erdogan, the French president claimed he did not serve in Algeria during the War of Independence (1954-1962), thereby making it clear that he is not accountable for the activities of the French army 50 years ago. This perhaps is a manifestation of how France dealt with its own past, it simply turned the page. Why then does Turkey not have the right to turn the page on what happened 100 years ago during the Ottoman Empire?
Samir Amir Setti
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East