France: Shoulder to shoulder with Armenians

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Saturday 16 Feb 2019

France continues to demonstrate its commitment to and support for the Armenian people. Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian looks into the history of their close friendship

Macron visiting the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial
File Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron and First Lady Brigitte Macron plant a tree while visiting the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on October 11, 2018 (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron last week announced that France will “make 24 April a national day of commemoration of the Armenian Genocide”.

Speaking to the Armenian community at a dinner in Paris organised by the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organisations of France, Macron added: “France is, first and foremost, the country that knows how to look history in the face. France was among the first to denounce the killing of the Armenian people, which in 1915 named genocide for what it was, and who in 2001, after a long struggle, recognised it in law.”

Macron’s remarks honoured a campaign promise from his election in 2017.

The French Armenian community is the largest in the European Union, exceeding 500,000.

Turkey dismissed the decision of Macron, “who is facing political problems in his own country to save the day,” Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement. Macron is “turning historic events into political material,” the statement read, referring to the jilet jaune protests, saying that Macron is using the Armenian issue to deflect attention.

“The 1913-1923 Christian genocide is Turkey’s original sin. If Turkey wants to be a civilised, democratic and respected nation, they need to face up to the reality of the genocide and do their best to secure some respect and justice for the victims. But they don’t. Instead, they continue verbally attacking the governments that rightfully recognise the genocide,” Washington-based Turkish analyst Uzay Bulut told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The first Armenians in France date back to the sixth century. Military and commercial relations between the French and Armenians started growing in the 11th to 14th centuries. In the ninth century, several young Armenians moved to France to receive their education and became part of the social and political life in the country. In 1855, the first French Armenian newspapers, Arevelk (East) and Masyats Aghavni (Pigeon of Mount Masiss) started publishing in Paris.

Formal diplomatic relations between France and Armenia were first established in 1992. In 1998, at the time of President Chirac, a resolution by the French National Assembly saying “France recognises the Armenian genocide of 1915” was passed, meeting strong Turkish objections.

France was also the first European country to officially recognise the Armenian Genocide, in 2001.

In 2012, in the time of Nicolas Sarkozy, tensions mounted between France and Turkey after the French National Assembly voted in favour of a bill that would leave denial of the Armenian Genocide illegal.

Turkey froze relations with France, recalling its ambassador and suspending all economic, political and military meetings in response.

Tensions resurfaced in 2016, when the French National Assembly voted again in favour of outlawing denial of the Armenian Genocide, the 2012 bill having been later blocked by the Constitutional Court.

During the 1915 massacres, the French welcomed tens of thousands of Armenians into their country as a safe haven. France was also one of the few countries to send rescue boats for the Armenians after a heroic 53-day battle of self-defence known as Musa Ler (Mount Musa).

The French pro-Armenian position is historic. “This friendship between the two nations has a multi-decade long history,” Marseille-based member of the Armenian National Committee Hratch Varjabedian told the Weekly.

France’s former presidents have all had positive political attitudes towards Armenians. “This is because of the efficiency of the Armenian community of France and its powerful lobbying efforts, which definitely worries Turkey all the time,” Varjabedian said.

He believes that continuous Armenian lobbying was one of the reasons that made President Macron take the step he did last week.

There are monuments dedicated to victims of the Armenian Genocide in several cities in France, including Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Armenians of France remained close to their cultural origins, while at the same time they integrated in France and contributed greatly to Francophone culture.

Many Armenian writers, poets, painters and musicians have worked and died in France. Both French and Armenians are proud of the likes of Charles Aznavour, Henri Verneuil, Marc Aryan, Sylvie Vartan, Youri Djorkaeff, Michel Legrand, Andre Manoukian and other prominent figures in the French Resistance, like Patrick Devedjian, Missak Manouchian and Louise Aslanian.

Also died in Paris, founder of the Armenian national school of music, priest, composer, singer and choirmaster; Komitas, whose ashes and manuscripts were transferred to Armenia after his death.

“The great respect the French president and his people paid when Aznavour departed this world is never to be forgotten. It was like honouring one of the most respected communities in France,” Varjabedian said.

Macron visited Armenia in October 2018 and took part in the 17th Summit of Francophonie.

“Most of today’s Turks reject that a genocide existed; however, there is an increasing movement, it’s still in small numbers, of Turks who do accept that something very nasty happened to the Armenians,” France 24’s Jasper Mortimer said in a televised report.

According to Mortimer, the Renault automobile factory in Turkey produces 365,000 cars a year. “You see a lot of Renault cars on Turkish roads; trade is very important between the two countries and I expect it to be maintained,” Mortimer said.

In response to Macron’s decision, in Turkey, leader of the right-wing Grand Unity Party (BBP) Mustafa Destici called for the deportation of 100,000 Armenian workers who he claimed are working illegally in Turkey.

“In 2010 too, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had made a similar statement. He threatened to deport 100,000 Armenians if foreign parliaments continued to recognise the Armenian Genocide. It is ironic that Turkish authorities threaten to harm the Armenians who are alive today when they want to “prove” that their ancestors did not commit crimes against Armenians a century ago. This shows that violating Armenians and other non-Turkish peoples comes so naturally to them that they do not even realise that their statements are incredibly inhumane, hostile and atrocious,” Bulut told the Weekly.

It remains to be seen whether trade between the two countries will be affected by Macron’s decision, but Bulut is doubtful.

“No. Turkey is going through an economic crisis now and Turkish officials cannot risk commercial troubles with France,” Bulut concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Shoulder to shoulder

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