PARIS — Ties between France and Turkey, strategic allies and trading partners, abruptly unraveled Thursday after French legislators passed a bill making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago constitute genocide.
The bill strikes at the heart of national honor in Turkey, which denies the genocide label and insists the 1915 massacres occurred during civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, with losses on both sides. But it's seen as a matter of principle for some French politicians, and a matter of long-overdue justice for the half a million people in France of Armenian descent, many of whom had relatives among the 1.5 million Armenians killed.
The French bill still needs Senate approval, but after it passed the lower house, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan halted bilateral political and economic contacts, suspended military cooperation and ordered his country's ambassador home for consultations. Turkey argues France is trampling freedom of expression and that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a vote-getting mission before April presidential elections.
France formally recognized the 1915 killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone refuting that. The bill passed Thursday sets a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of euro45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings, putting such action on par with denial of the Holocaust.
The diplomatic riposte by Turkey over the vote by lawmakers in France's lower house, the National Assembly, may get even tougher. It hurts ties as both NATO members are involved in international efforts for peace from Syria to Afghanistan.
"Our measures and precautions will come to life stage-by-stage according to France's position," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
France expressed regret over Turkey's response.
"It is important, in the current context, that we keep the paths of dialogue and cooperation open," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement.
Strains have plagued the relationship between Paris and Ankara in recent years, in large part because Sarkozy opposes mostly-Muslim Turkey's bid to join the European Union. The bill reached the French parliament after Sarkozy visited Armenia in October and urged Turkey, "a great country" to "honor itself by revisiting its history like other countries in the world have done."
But for it to become law, the Senate must also pass the bill. There is a small window of time to quickly do so, between Jan. 10 and Feb. 24 when a four-month freeze on all but the most critical legislation goes into effect ahead of spring presidential and legislative elections.
There's no guarantee this will be a speedy process. A similar piece of legislation passed by the lower house in 2006 took five years to reach the Senate, which rejected it.
Most historians contend the 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.
An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France, and many have pressed to raise the legal statute regarding the massacres to the same level as the Holocaust by punishing the denial of genocide.
But the Turkish premier called the legislation's approval "unjust and unfortunate," adding, "There is no genocide in our history, we do not accept it."
"As of now, we are canceling bilateral level political, economic and military activities," Erdogan announced. "We are suspending all kinds of political consultations with France" and "bilateral military cooperation, joint maneuvers are canceled as of now."
The Turkish prime minister said requests for military overflights or landings on Turkish territory would be assessed on a case-by-case basis while permissions granted to French military vessels to dock at Turkish ports would be canceled.
Military cooperation between France and Turkey was suspended in 2006 after the lower-house bid in France to punish deniers of an Armenian genocide. Military cooperation was gradually resumed but remains limited.
Turkey did not limit its actions to ties with Ankara. Sounding almost vindictive, Erdogan threatened to denounce France in Africa and the Middle East.
"We will inform Africa, we will inform the Middle East and when traveling in many countries we will talk about genocides which they have been trying to make (the world) forget about," he said. It was a reference to France's colonial past in Algeria, where massacres were carried out, and to Rwanda where some claim a French role in the 1994 genocide.
It was clear long before the vote – easily passed with a show of hands – that France was on a collision course with Turkey. Ankara had threatened to remove Ambassador Tahsin Burcuoglu if French lawmakers did not desist and warned of "grave consequences" to political and economic ties.
The ambassador said he is leaving on the first flight out of Paris Friday morning. He said that diplomacy is never black and white. "There are always gray pages but now, these pages become blacker and blacker," he told reporters in Paris on Thursday night.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim who over the years raised the profile of Turkey's governing Islamic-rooted party, suggested France's bid to punish those who deny the Armenian genocide was in part a way to lure far-right voters to Sarkozy's camp by kindling the fires of Islamaphobia.
"This decision is cause for concern not only for France where there are efforts to make gains through enmity toward Turks and Turkey, and in general terms, through Islamaphobia, but also for Europe and principles defended by Europe," he said.
"I ask: Is there freedom of expression in France? Let me answer it myself: No. (This decision) has eliminated the environment of free thought."
Some French lawmakers expressed outraged at Turkey's attempt to sway their vote and a demonstration by Turks living in France outside the National Assembly.
"The fact that we are subject to pressures ... in front of the National Assembly where the heart of the (French) Republic beats, I find that particularly shocking," said Valerie Boyer, author of the measure and lawmaker from Sarkozy's conservative UMP party.
"Laws voted in this chamber cannot be dictated by Ankara," said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a deputy from the New Center party.
For many French Armenians, the legislation's advancement meant a swell of relief.
"Our ancestors can finally rest in peace," said 75-year-old Maurice Delighazarian, who said his grandparents on both sides were among the victims of the 1915 massacre.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Catherine Gaschka contributed to this article.