ISTANBUL — Turkey on Friday accused France of committing genocide during its colonial occupation of Algeria, angrily responding after French lawmakers passed a bill making it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks constitute genocide.
The deepening acrimony between two strategic allies and trading partners could have repercussions far beyond the settling of accounts over some of the bloodiest episodes of the past century.
Turkey and France worked closely together during NATO’s operation against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and coordinate policy on Syria and Afghanistan. Turkey was already frustrated by French opposition to its stalled European Union bid, and hopes for Western-backed rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia seem ever more distant ahead of 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian killings.
The bill strikes at the heart of national honor in Turkey, which maintains there was no systematic campaign to kill Armenians and that many Turks also died during the chaotic disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.
The French bill still needs Senate approval, but after it passed the lower house Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan halted bilateral political and economic contacts, suspended military cooperation and ordered his country’s ambassador home for consultations.
“What the French did in Algeria was genocide,” Erdogan said Friday in a heavily personal speech, laced with criticism of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
He alleged that beginning in 1945, about 15 percent of the population of Algeria was massacred by the French.
“They were mercilessly martyred,” he said.
The bill’s passage “is a clear example of how racism, discrimination and anti-Muslim sentiment have reached new heights in France and in Europe,” Erdogan said. “French President Sarkozy’s ambition is to win an election based on promoting animosity against Turks and Muslims.”
France holds presidential elections in April.
France formally recognized the killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone refuting that. The bill sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of (euro) 45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or “outrageously minimize” the killings, putting such action on par with denial of the Holocaust.
Most historians contend the Ottoman killings of the Armenians constituted the first genocide of the 20th century. But the issue is dicey for any government that wants a strong alliance with Turkey, a rising power. In Washington, President Barack Obama has stopped short of calling the killings genocide.
The Armenian National Committee of America said the French vote “reinforces the growing international consensus — and the mounting pressure on Turkey — for a truthful and just resolution of the Armenian Genocide.”