President Nicolas Sarkozy of France seems intent on criminalising Armenian genocide denial, even after his country's Constitution Council quashed a recent bid. Parliament's vote last December for such a law had sparked off a bitter diplomatic row with Turkey, which recalled its ambassador and cut off military cooperation with Paris. The timing of the dispute and the government's unrelenting stance on how this dark episode should be viewed are hard to fathom. But there is speculation that this ratcheting up of pressure is purely to woo Armenian voters in the upcoming presidential election. The Council held this week that in approving the controversial legislation, the French Parliament caused harm to the exercise of freedom of expression. The ruling is a blow for the view that opinions on history cannot be legally enforced, relevant for France as well as other European countries where denying the Nazi Holocaust is a crime. Curiously, legislators who appealed against the December bill had originally voted in its favour, a welcome reconsideration of a regressive step. France has been dabbling with similar counter-intuitive measures in recent years. Surely, the country's large racial and religious minorities are unlikely to feel reassured by official validations of history. Of material significance would be policies that promote respect for their rights and protect jobs, mitigating a sense of alienation, especially in the current economic crisis gripping Europe.
While Turkey has hailed the decision of the French court, the country's own law banning the affirmation of the slaughter of Armenians is of a piece with the French proposal it has sought to repudiate with sanctions. Whereas Ankara has repeatedly negated the claim that the extirpation of Armenians was a matter of deliberate policy, owning up to events of history is perhaps a healthier way of righting historical wrongs. Moreover, the essence of any constitutional democracy is that historical crimes and controversies are part of a country's collective past. Surely, the politics behind attempts to deny the horrors of history must be exposed. But to clamp down on such forces betrays an authoritarian and undemocratic tendency inimical to an open polity. The European Union has acted judiciously in enacting a law against incitement to racial hatred, rather than a blanket ban on Holocaust denial. In the light of this common position, individual states could perhaps take another look at their domestic laws.