Thursday, October 12, 2006

(Yet another) French Liberticidal Law.

The French have a bit of an obsession for the law - whenever there is something to fix, they pass a law to fix it. But in the last 15 years, the law has been used to legislate not just the present and the public but the past as and the private as well.

In 1990 the Gayssot Act (Loi Gayssot) made it an offense in France to question the existence of the category of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of 1945. A lot of European countries have - for obvious historical reasons - specific laws against the denial of the Holocaust. That’s the case in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.

But lately the French legislature has pushed the limits of the law even further – for instance, two years ago, the French lawmakers passed a law to encourage schools to paint a positive picture of its colonial past in their history lessons.The law was eventually repealed after a wave of protests and petitions.

On this occasion, President Chirac stated that “Laws are not meant to write history," and that "The writing of history is for historians.".

But today, the French parliament just voted overwhelmingly (although few deputies were actually present during the vote) a law that would make it a crime to deny that the killings of Armenians in the early 20th century was a genocide. In fact, the law would impose a one year prison term and a 45,000 euro ($56,570) fine on anyone who denies the 1915 genocide of Armenians took place.

As you can guess, Turkey is not very happy, and neither is the EU. But the real issue is not about whether Turkey should be pleased but about whether this constitutes yet another violation of freedom of expression. It is before anything else a moral issue.

Of course, it can be easily argued that denying a historical fact is NOT a matter of ‘opinion’ and indeed, using the word ‘opinion’ in this case is a way to turn factual reality into relativism, but why prevent people from denying even reality itself. It seems it would be all easier to prove that genocide deniers are in the wrong by confronting them with hard facts and compelling evidence. Let’s make a fool of themselves. As much as I am opposed to the Gayssot Law, I am against this one.

On this blog we have made it clear before that we think France has been putting too many constraints on “freedom of expression” and by doing this, it compromises a bit more its moral credibility.

This new law in France is clearly meant at annoying the Turks and I agree with some Turks who think French politicians have a broader agenda and are using the bill to try to block Ankara's EU bid.

There is quite a bit of irony in this situation:

  • the same people who defended the French philosophy teacher’s attack on Islam in the name of “freedom of expression” seem to be backing the law. That is the case of many socialists and communists. (here and here)
  • At the same time, the bill has actually divided all political parties within themselves. For instance, even though it was introduced by a socialist, some...
including former Culture Minister and lawmaker Jack Lang, have expressed their opposition. He said the bill was unconstitutional and would infringe on freedom of expression. (IHT)
French socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal said :
"France had also found it painful to deal with darker chapters of its past.It's not easy for certain countries to recognise a number of actions or episodes that are totally counter to the respect of human dignity," she said.

  • And the French government (whose party has a majority of seats in Parliament) said they did not support the bill and that it was up to historians and not parliament to judge the past. But at the same time:

the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) gave its lawmakers a free hand in the vote, ensuring it would pass.

This is not surprising:

Royal's likely conservative competitor for the 2007 poll, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, is a long-standing opponent of Turkey's EU entry.

French public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to turkey joining the EU so it is a way for the ruling party to cowardly let a law be passed without taking any risk:

UMP party officials expect around 60 of their 362 parliamentarians to back the motion, with most of the rest likely to skip the debate, handing victory to the Socialists.

  • Even the Armenian community is divided.

While some leaders of France's Armenian community, which is up to 500,000-strong -one of the largest in Europe - had pushed hard for the bill and found cross-party support within parliament, I spoke today to an Armenian French who said that she opposes the bill for fear of a backlash against Armenians in the rest of the world and in France. she also feels that the tragedy of her people is being used for electoral reasons.

For some deputies, however, this is more than mere electoral opportunity:

Didier Billion, political scientist at Institut des Relations Internationales et Strategiques:
"For several deputies, there is a moral duty to say France -- as the homeland of human rights -- must take a position on these issues. I think some deputies really believe in that.”
This is so true, so French and so... arrogant! In that, France and the US have a lot in common, don't they? They think they have some moral duty to the world.... as if the world cared!
Fortunately,
the bill still needs to be ratified by both the upper house Senate and the French president to become law, and it is unlikely to pass the Senate.

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