In 1789 the French people overturned their government in one of the bloodiest revolutions that Europe has ever seen. With it came the downfall of much of the feudal government of the past, swept away by the rise of nationalism and demands for liberty. At this time, the French coined their famous motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity), which served as a potent example for the rest of Europe. Over 150 years later, France was party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which have been ratified by the United Nations and the EU, respectively.
History clearly demonstrates that the French care about their civil liberties — which is why I find it so hard to believe that a law about genocide denial in France passed through both houses of the French Parliament last week. This law makes it illegal for French citizens to deny that a genocide against the Armenian people occurred shortly after the First World War. In 1915, many Armenians were killed in a confrontation with the then-crumbling Ottoman Empire. These events have been dubbed the “Armenian Genocide” — the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who were trying to escape the war. Whether or not this confrontation can be considered genocide has been a matter of debate, among some, for nearly a century.
I do not presume to know whether those events constituted a genocide or not. This question is one for historians and philosophers to debate; it is the job of the academic world and those knowledgeable about the time to think about it. We are all entitled to our opinion, it is perfectly acceptable for the French people to believe that a genocide occurred. It is also OK to think the opposite. This debate is not why I am dismayed.
I’m appalled is because if the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, signs the bill into law, it will be illegal for anyone to deny that the events of 1915 were genocide. Further, the denial of the events will be punishable with a one-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $58,000. Please take the moment to read that again, because every time I do, I am once again horrified that the government of a country supposedly in love with the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood is willing to throw all three of these out the window. I
If we examine the original French revolutionary document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Article 11 reads as follows: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man.” But wait, one quote isn’t enough, so let’s look at the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 10: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
So how did the French government let the law get this far? I cannot comprehend how they let themselves be swayed to massacre the freedom of expression, to view those who believe in a way that does not agree with their opinions as second-rate citizens, and to forsake important political, strategic, and cultural ties. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the oppressive, dark-ages style way of thought in which opinion has lost meaning and expression has been replaced with a pitch-black void.
With this new law, France has taken the first step in starting a new revolution: one in which basic human rights are ignored out of self-interest. Having opinions is a fundamental and essential reality of the human condition. Believing that the events of 1915 were genocide is perfectly acceptable; it is an opinion and just like every opinion, it has merit. Criminalizing those who disagree with this opinion, however, is unjust and hypocritical. I hope that the French Constitutional Court, which has been called upon by French lawmakers to reexamine the constitutionality of the bill, quickly comes to the realization that such a law would not only be devastating by itself, but would also set a precedent asserting politics’ dominance over the citizens’ thoughts and opinions. I don’t know about you, but that’s an Orwellian future that I am not willing to accept.