Members of a pro-Islamic party shout slogans against France and French President Nicolas Sarkozy outside the French Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, December 21, 2011
Members of a pro-Islamic party shout slogans against France and French President Nicolas Sarkozy outside the French Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, December 21, 2011

French lawmakers are to vote Thursday on a bill making genocide denial illegal, despite Turkish threats to sanction France if the law is passed. The legislation threatens to further erode bilateral relations.

The French National Assembly bill makes denial of any act of genocide punishable by a year in prison and a fine of nearly $60,000. But it has struck a particularly sensitive chord in Turkey, because France considers the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians under the former Ottoman empire an act of genocide.

During a visit to Armenia earlier this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for Ankara to recognize the mass killings of Armenians as a case of genocide.

Sarkozy said Turkey should look history in the face, which only great nations are able to do. He drew parallels with France's painful rapprochement with Germany after World War II. The French bill is championed by Sarkozy's center-right UMP party, although it has support from the left as well.

But Turkey rejects the term genocide and disputes the numbers of Armenians killed. It argues Muslim Turks and Kurds were also killed during the fighting in 1915.

If the legislation is passed, Ankara warns France will face diplomatic and economic reprisals. Delegations of Turkish lawmakers and businessmen were in Paris this week lobbying their cause.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe (R) and member
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe (R) and members of the Turkish National Assembly are seen ahead of their meeting in Paris, December 20, 2011

A member of the Turkish delegations told French TV that if the bill is passed it will sink Turkish-French relations. He called it a betrayal of Turkey.

European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Dimitar Bechev says French interests in Turkey could be hurt.

"Lots of French businesses have done very well in Turkey," said Bechev. "France is one of the bigger economic partners. So it will hurt if there is a turnaround.  But I expect as things develop, there will be some diplomatic repercussions."

So why go ahead with the vote?  Some French media speculate that 2012 election-year politics and a desire to garner support from French Armenian voters are at play.  

"In the calculation of French politicians, Turkey-bashing is a winner," Bechev added. "It wins votes, it wins the Armenian community and it may win the right wing as well. And I think that is what is happening right now."

If passed, the legislation is certain to further erode French-Turkish ties, already strained over Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's bid to join the European Union. The bloc as a whole is divided over Turkey's application, and Ankara's interest in joining is waning as its influence in the Middle East and elsewhere increases.

"Right now, we are going through a low point in the bilateral relationship and the challenge is how to improve it," Bechev said.

Turkey and Armenia signed a peace agreement two years ago that included setting up an expert commission to examine the 1915 events and restoring diplomatic ties, but neither country has ratified the accord.