France’s view of history could threaten its trade with Turkey

ISTANBUL (AFP) – French businessmen in Turkey are bracing for a vote in their country’s National Assembly this Thursday that could prove disastrous for trade. France’s Socialists have stirred up a very sore point in relations with Turkey over an issue that dates back to World War I, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished. At stake for French business is an estimated 7.5-billion-euros’ worth of French-Turkish trade. The Socialists want to punish anyone who denies that a crime of genocide was committed by Turkish troops, and have submitted a bill proposing five years in jail and a 45,000 euro fine for those denying genocide. The Turks have always denied that genocide occurred, and are already furious with the French over their view of history. In 2001, the French National Assembly seriously antagonized Turkey by passing legislation officially declaring that the tragedy between 1915 and 1917 was to be regarded as genocide. The Turks concede there were many deaths 90 years ago but resist the legal term «genocide,» a word which is poison here. They insist the Armenians were instead the victims of a terrible war. Massacre and deportations of Armenians claimed 1.5 million lives, according to the Armenian side. The Turks say no more than some 300,000 died. Last Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed to France to block the new bill, warning of the threat to relations posed by it. France, with the largest expatriate Armenian population in Europe, has a special interest in the Armenians’ fate. But Luc de Noirmont, head of the major French retailer Carrefour, appealed to his country’s legislators to «be guided by reason.» In fact, political observers predict the bill is likely to fail because the opposition will not be able to muster enough votes on Thursday. But French executives are still nervous and will be able to heave a sigh of relief only when Thursday is past. Several French companies including the electronic and high-tech giants Thomson and Alcatel have already been deliberately kept out of invitations for tenders by Turkish authorities, and a clamor has arisen in Turkey for a boycott of French goods. «In 2001, the effects of the (French) genocide law were diluted by the fact that Turkey was going into serious economic crisis,» said Francois Sporrer, head of the French economic mission in Istanbul. Bilateral trade fell due to this crisis, with French exports plunging from 2.78 billion euros in 2000 to 1.79 billion euros in 2001. But things are different now. Five years on, Turkey has made a comeback, notching up new growth records of 5.9 percent 2003, 9.9 percent in 2004 and 7.6 percent last year. «This time the consequences will be more serious,» warned Esref Hamamcioglu, Turkish director of the French catering group Sodexho. «The government is better organized and feels stronger since we have become official candidates for EU entry,» he said.