PARIS — Lawmakers vote on Thursday on a measure that would make it a crime in France to deny that a mass killings of Armenians in 1915 amounted to a genocide, a measure that could put France on a collision course with Turkey, a strategic ally and trading partner which says the conflict nearly 100 years ago should be left to historians.
France formally recognized the killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone denying that. The bill sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of €45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings by Ottoman Turks, putting such action on a par with denial of the Holocaust.
The conservative government has indicated it backs the measure despite the ire — and threats — of Turkey. The measure is expected to easily pass in the National Assembly, the lower house — though its fate in the Senate is less clear.
An initial bid to punish denial of the Armenian genocide failed earlier this year, killed by the Senate — five years after it was passed by the lower house.
Turkey, which vehemently rejects the term "genocide," has campaigned to get France to abandon the legislation, threatening to withdraw its ambassador and warning of "grave consequences" to economic and political ties.
French authorities have stressed the importance of bilateral ties with Turkey and the key role it plays in sensitive strategic issues as a member of NATO, in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
However, President Nicolas Sarkozy has long opposed the entry into the European Union of mostly Muslim Turkey, putting a constant strain on the two nations' ties.
Turkey says that with the measure France, the cradle of human rights, will be tampering with freedom of expression by denying people the right to say what they think. Turkish authorities attribute the action to a bid by Sarkozy's party for short-term political gains ahead of spring presidential and legislative elections.
Turkish authorities have weighed in with caustic remarks about France's past, with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recalling its colonial history in Algeria and a 1945 massacre there, as well as its role in Rwanda where some have claimed a French role in the 1994 genocide there.
"Those who do want to see genocide should turn around and look at their own dirty and bloody history," Erdogan said last weekend. "Turkey will stand against this intentional, malicious, unjust and illegal attempt through all kinds of diplomatic means."
Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke out on the issue this week, saying it will "put France in a position of a country that does not respect freedom of expression and does not allow objective scientific research."
Turkey insists the mass killings of Armenians — up to 1.5 million, historians estimate — occurred during civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, with losses on both sides. Historians contend the Armenians were massacred in the first genocide of the 20th century.
France is pressing Turkey to own up to its history for the sake of "memory" just as the French have officially recognized the role of the state, the collaborationist Vichy government, in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.
In October, Sarkozy made a visit to Armenia and from its capital, Yerevan, urged Turkey to recognize the 1915 killings as genocide.
"Turkey, which is a great country, would honor itself by revisiting its history like other countries in the world have done," Sarkozy said.
Still, France has worked to soften the diplomatic impact of the bill. Government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse reiterated on Wednesday that the move applies to all genocides and is not specifically about the Armenian killings. However, she added that the government views the text as "the reaffirmation of a universal principle which is that each nation must ... have the courage to review its memory and look at its history with lucidity."
France took its own time recognizing the state's role in the Holocaust. It was not until 1995 that a French leader, then-President Jacques Chirac proclaimed France's active role in sending its citizens to death camps. And it was only in 2009 that his historic declaration was formally recognized in a ruling by France's top body, the Council of State.