French view of history threatens trade with Turkey

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 $9,6-billion 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 jail and a €45 000 ($57 000) 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 antagonised Turkey by passing legislation officially declaring that the tragedy between 1915 and 1917 was to be regarded as genocide.

The Turks concede that 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 contentious 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 that 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.
For they have been feeling the heat in the run-up, as Turkish tempers rise at the very mention of the proposals of French Socialists.

Several French companies including the electronic and hi-tech giants Thomson and Alcatel have already been deliberately kept out of invitations to tender by Turkish authorities, and a clamour 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 in any case because of this crisis, with French exports plunging from $3,53-billion in 2000 to $2,28-billion in 2001, according to figures of the national statistical institute here.

But things are different now. Five years on, Turkey has made a comeback, notching up new growth records of 5,9% in 2003, 9,9% in 2004 and 7,6% last year.

“Few countries are experiencing an economic boom comparable to that of Turkey at present,” said the head of Carrefour.

“This time the consequences will be more serious,” warned Esref Hamamcioglu, Turkish director of the French catering group Sodexho. “The government is better organised and feels stronger especially since we have become official candidates for entry into the European Union.”

And Yves-Marie Laouenan, head of the French chamber of commerce in Turkey, issued a warning.

“It’s going to be worse this time. If the Bill is passed, going to France and saying there was no genocide would be like mark of patriotism.”

“The most serious thing that happened in 2001 was an underhand form of boycott applied by individuals inside government, especially the customs who took it upon themselves to defend national honour,” he recalled.

The 430-member Turkish chamber of commerce has intensified appeals to French leaders including a letter to President Jacques Chirac, urging them to abandon Thursday’s vote. - AFP

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