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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Jan van der Made

Who gets to be remembered under France's contentious 'memory laws'?

A woman holds French and Armenian flags during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, at the Paris monument to victims of the Armenian genocide on 24 April 2015. © AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

In France, 24 April is a national day of remembrance for the Armenian genocide of 1915, when Ottoman troops killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians. Other groups who were victimised want their plight recognised too – but getting a place in France's "memory laws" is controversial, and not an easy process.

"Memory laws are about recognition," says Christophe Premat, a former MP for the French Socialist Party and now an expert in memory studies at Stockholm University.

Under a 2019 French law, 24 April is designated the official day for the yearly commemoration of the Armenian genocide.

The date marks the beginning of the arrest, deportation and execution of Armenian intellectuals by Turkish forces on the night of 24 April 1915, which over the following years would turn into a concerted campaign that Armenia says eventually cost the lives of as many as 1.5 million people.

Oriental Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians were also subjected to mass murder and expulsion as part of the same drive to create a nationalist Turkish state.

At the time, thousands of Armenians fled abroad and pushed the story into international media, where the genocide was widely reported.

Film poster of "Ravished Armenia," a Hollywood production from 1919 about the Armenian genocide four years earlier, based on the book by Aurora Mardiganian, who plays herself. © Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute

Many went to France, which became home to Europe's largest Armenian diaspora. Along with Russia and the United Kingdom, France condemned the events as "crimes against humanity and civilisation" as early as May 1915.

But it was only in 2001 that France officially recognised the massacres as genocide, making it the first major European power to do so. Its first national commemoration took place in 2019.

Legislating memory

The Armenian genocide and its commemoration are part of a larger debate on the role of politics in marking – or taking a stance on – historical events.

Such debates reached their zenith in the 1990s and early 2000s.

"In the beginning, it was about the Holocaust, the Second World War," Premat told RFI.

In 1990 France passed the Gayssot Law, which made denial of the Jewish Holocaust a criminal offence.

"But then progressively new actors started promoting minority rights, tackling slavery and seeing the possibility for the recognition of past crimes," Premat said.

Eventually the discussions resulted in parliamentary debates and proposals on the Armenian genocide, the slave trade, the Algerian war of independence and the Ottomans' massacres of Assyrian-Chaldean Christians.

But while drafting bills that asked for recognition of crimes was fairly simple, punishing denial was more problematic.

Backlash from historians

In 2005, a group of French historians led by Pierre Nora founded the collective Liberté pour l'Histoire ("Freedom for History"), which was critical of the idea that governments should determine the historical record.

In an appeal issued by the collective in 2008 and signed by some 750 historians from all over Europe, they expressed concern about the "retrospective moralisation of history" and "intellectual censorship".

"History must not be a slave to contemporary politics," they wrote.

"In a free state, no political authority has the right to define historical truth and to restrain the freedom of the historian with the threat of penal sanctions."

The petition led to a special parliamentary commission, which later that year advised lawmakers against any new legislation qualifying the past – while leaving existing memory laws intact.

The effect was soon felt. In January 2012, both houses of the French parliament passed a bill outlawing the denial of all genocides officially recognised by France, including the Armenian genocide.

But the Constitutional Council followed up, and the next month ruled that punishing denial of the Armenian genocide was a "violation of the freedom of expression" and thus unconstitutional.

Political leverage

This was repeated in 2016, when the French Parliament supported a government-sponsored bill to punish "the denial of crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity". That proposal was struck down by the Constitutional Council one year later.

According to Nikolay Koposov, a professor of European history and author of Memory Laws, Memory Wars, this "sent a message to French politicians: only crimes against humanity defined as such by a legal tribunal could be subject to memory laws".

As such, he says, banning denial of crimes committed in the Crusades, the slave trade and the Armenian genocide was effectively ruled out.

France held its first national day of commemoration of the Armenian genocide on 24 April 2019. © ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

While there is a broad consensus of the facts of the Jewish Holocaust, researchers point out, other crimes – such as the Armenian genocide – are contested, and may be used as political tools.

"Turkey contests the notion of genocide [when] applied to what happened in 1915," says Premat. "So that's a source of disagreement."

Meanwhile, Turkey recognising the Armenian genocide is being used as a pressure point for Ankara's admission to EU membership.

Negotiations have been frozen for many years, "and France is not really promoting that decision", Premat says.

Drive for remembrance 

Yet victimised groups continue to push for official recognition of their suffering.

Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, part of the Oriental Orthodox Church, want France to commemorate the massacre of some 250,000 members under Ottoman rule in 1915-18.

Their supporters have proposed a new memory law that would declare the murders genocide and make 24 April a joint day of remembrance for Armenian and Assyrian-Chaldean Christian victims.

The bill was approved by the Senate in February 2023 and is currently awaiting a vote by the National Assembly.

As the proposal only calls for recognition, not a ban on denial, it runs less risk of being judged unconstitutional.

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