France’s Armenian genocide law

In January 2012, the French Senate approved a law criminalising the denial of any genocide recognised by the state, writes Clementine de Montjoye.

The case

On the 23 January 2012, the French Senate approved a law criminalising the denial of any genocide recognised by the state. Such a law had already been passed in France in 1990 regarding the Holocaust. However, this would now also apply to the fate of the Armenians in 1915, since France officially recognised those events as genocide in 2001. The bill made two amendments to the original Holocaust denial law. Firstly, it encompassed the protection of the honour of any victim of genocide, war crime, crimes against humanity and crimes of collaboration with the enemy. It criminalised not just the praise of war crimes committed, but also the minimisation and contestation of the existence of genocides. Secondly, it allowed memorial associations to legally defend the honour of any citizen victim of war crime and crime against humanity, as well as the original victims amongst the resistance and the deported. The maximum penalty was a €45,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

An attempt was made in the National Assembly to get rid of this article in December 2011 and was rejected. Those supporting the law argued that since these massacres are recognised by the state, they are incontestable truths. They should not simply be left for historians to debate but should become a part of the political realm. However, on 28 February 2012, the law was declared anti-constitutional by the Constitutional court. Seventy deputies of all different political parties, including Sarkozy’s own UMP, supported this decision. The law was considered an attack on free speech, and deputies argued that historical truth could not be established by law.

Author opinion

The corollary to research and learning being doubt, it seems on principle absolutely wrong to prevent people from questioning established truths. Although it is important to defend the honour and acknowledge the offence suffered by victims of war crimes, the law has no role to play in imposing it. This type of distrust towards education, society and open debate usually leads to more unspoken ignorance than genuine respect. If the non-respect of genocides is a problem, then sentencing people guilty of it to a fine of up to €45,000 and a year in jail is more of an attempt to ignore the roots of the problem than a constructive solution to a lack of historical knowledge and conscience. I am therefore relieved to see that although the law was passed, a space exists within our current legal system to question it and revoke it.

- Clementine de Montjoye

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Comments (5)

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  1. The French government should butt out of other peoples’ affairs. They have too many of their own national scandals to justify their meddling in others’. To begin with, let us remember that France was the only government actively to collaborate with Hitler and the Nazi regime during the Second World War. Are they going to make it illegal to discuss that treachery to the Allied cause ?

    • Hi Jack,

      I’m afraid this is not entirely accurate. Other governments collaborated with the Nazis, and in my opinion the debate about this law has nothing to do with placing blame for events that took place in the past. It is just a question of educating people about the past, however embarrassing and traumatic it may be, in order to avoid taboos and prevent history from repeating itself.

      It undeniable that we need to speak up more for the injustices and genocides of this world, that have often been forgotten and ignored by the international community. However, it is a matter of educating rather than forcing people to respect these events.

      Thank you for your comment though.

  2. You write in reply that we should try to “prevent history from repeating itself. ” That reminds one of Santayana’s oft-quoted snippet of wisdom. There was never a more striking instance of a wise-sounding maxim deluding people. It is quite impossible to prevent history from repeating itself because people do not seek and acquire great power to help mankind or to work for everlasting peace: their sole concern is power and its exercise in their own interests.
    Jack Dixon

  3. I agree with Clementine de Montjoye: it’s no sense to try to impose an oficial truth by legal coaction. Serious historians agree on subjects as the armenian genocide after WW1 or the jews genocide during WW2. What’s the advantage of forbiding other opinions over those past facts?

  4. While its title is dominated by it, this law is not only controversial in its relation to the internationally disputed Armenian Genocide, but also because of the implicit principles by which it is set. As is always the case with law you must look beyond its immediate consequences and question what precedent it actually sets. In this case it is both nuanced and controversial. The law explicitly forbids the denial or minimization of any genocide recognized by the French government, and works in follow up to the Holocaust denial law that came in place as early as 1990. The logic behind it seems reasonable enough: the holocaust and other genocides are such atrocious and shameful acts that denying or undermining them is simply unacceptable. Not only is it historically inaccurate to deny them, it is disrespectful, offensive, and, quite frankly, despicable. However even though almost everyone would agree that this kind of act is morally reprehensible, it is still worthwhile to question whether it is lawfully preventable. The answer to that is much more complicated.
    If the reason behind banning the practice is because it is disrespectful and ignorant, then this law is in violation of our idea of freedom of speech. Ignorance and disrespect is not and should not be illegal. If the reason is because it is directly offensive to a group of people who share sensitivities about the issue, then we must really question to what extent should offense and potential emotional harm be worthy of censorship. If the reason is because those who deny these events are usually themselves extremists, and seek to incite hatred and violence against a group of people and should therefor be contained anyway, then this law may hold some merit, but we must still ask whether this is really the most efficient way to legislate against these people.
    The question becomes even more difficult when you enter upon the idea of a historical conscience, and inherited guilt within a nation such as Germany. Perhaps this curtailment of free speech is really just an attempt at atonement for the wrongs that they may have committed. Again the question is not whether it is morally permissible, but whether it is legally permissible. And if the precedent and consequences of this law are closely evaluated, then it appears that legislators have overstepped their bounds with this one.

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