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A sudden, suspect French antipathy to denialism

In 1915 Turkish authorities killed half a million Armenians in what most scholars — but unsurprisingly, not the Turks — agree was a genocide. Next week, the French senate is poised to pass a law that makes it a criminal offence to deny that this was genocide, to be punished with a maximum fine of €45 000.

Cynics will attribute the proposed French law less to concern over the death of half a million Armenians a century ago and a continent away, than to concern about the votes of half a million Armenians living in France today and voting in this year’s presidential election. Those more generous might attribute the legislation to guilt, given that so many French — contrary to the post-1945 mythology of every citizen being a doughty Resistance fighter — collaborated enthusiastically with the Germans in sending Jews, Gypsies and assorted other ‘undesirables’ to be exterminated in the Nazi death camps.

There is irony, too, in the French government wanting to criminalise the denial of a genocide in which it has absolutely no historical involvement, while vociferously denying the involvement of its own politicians and officials in the Rwandan genocide, in which more than 800 000 were murdered. For there is ample of evidence that not only were the French guilty of not acting on their fore-knowledge to prevent the impending killings, but of actually providing material and other active military support to the Hutu extremists during the massacres.

Certainly the legislation cannot be attributed to the example of successful existing laws criminalising odious beliefs. The French bill is similar in intent to laws already existing in several European countries, including Germany and France, that make it a criminal offence to deny the 1940s Holocaust, in which six-million Jews were murdered. 

The ineffectiveness of such laws can be gauged by the fewer than two dozen successful criminal convictions attained over more than 60 years. This despite Holocaust denial remaining perniciously persistent in much of Europe.

All that has happened is that the denialists have gone underground. They circulate anonymously their twisted ‘truth’ accusing their governments of fearing the open debates that democracies claim to guarantee. 

If genocide could simply be legislated against, its bloody stain would long since have been eradicated from humanity’s tunic. In any case, because of their after-the-act nature, denialism laws are not actually meant to forestall genocide, defined by the United Nations Convention of 1948 as the intentional destruction in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

One cannot usefully legislate against an attitude or a belief, but one can legislate against criminal behaviour that might result from an attitude or a belief. Strong human rights protection in constitutions and laws against hate speech are far more credible mechanisms to contain extremist tendencies than martyring someone for his or her political delusions.

It is the duty of governments to protect their citizens from harm. It is not government’s task to protect its citizens’ sensitivities, however justifiable and acute, from peacefully expressed views, however bizarre.

This is not only a matter of the right to freedom of expression. To censor thought or opinion is to limit our understanding of the world. If one cannot look critically at certain historical events, the past remains frozen at an officially sanctioned moment in time. For history to credibly illuminate the present, it has to be open to continual academic revision.

Laws against denialism are cynical attempts to hide from public view the poisonous strains infesting the body politic. It is seductive to use a law to try to attempt to draw a veil over rank-smelling matters, rather than engage honestly with the lunatic fringe and expose them to the withering effect of reason and ridicule. 


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


  1. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 21 January 2012

    The French aslo are a bit tight lipped about their war in Algeria. Many were killed and trotured there by the Foreign Legion.
    They tend to brush that one under the carpet.

  2. OneFlew OneFlew 21 January 2012

    You don’t need to be a ‘cynic’ to attribute it to electioneering. In the same way that you don’t need to be a cynic to ascribe some of the bleating about the loss of their AAA rating (‘but you must downgrade perfidious Albion first. Their debt is so big and Anglo-Saxon’) to election year jitters.

    And the French aren’t particular friends of the Turks. They have for instance opposed Turkish EU membership at every turn. So they incur no real cost in doing this.

  3. OneFlew OneFlew 21 January 2012

    Mind you, a quick google suggests there may also be about half a million Turks in France. So I guess the political question is how many of them have the vote and an interest in this hundred year-old question. I am sure that Sarkozy and his mates have done the arithmetic.

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 22 January 2012

    ALL countries are hypocrites about their “glorious past”.And it is always easier to take the splinter out of your neighbour’s eye, than the moat out of your own. Take for example Bishop Tutu’s concern for the Chinese Han being bussed into Tibet, but total lack of concern about blacks bussed into the Coloured Homeland of the Western Cape, from the Transkei Black Homeland of the Eastern Cape..

    The Vichy French collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews was kept out of all school history books in France for decades.

    The Belgium exploitation of the Congo still appeared in the school history books of Belgium as Christian missionary work for many decades.

    And the world has turned a blind eye to the Armenian massacre for decades, and to the fact that the Armenian border has been closed for ages. In fact Armenians are prohibited by law in Turkey from teaching history as a subject, either in Armenian schools, or in Turkish schools.

  5. jandr0 jandr0 22 January 2012

    If this peremptory law is passed, I blame the French people – who are apparently willing to give up their rights and freedoms to a government so it can dictate to them what is right thinking and wrong thinking. Distinct Orwellian flavour to these actions.

    All over the world, governments are saying to their citizens: “Trust us.” And despite governments’ track records, it seems many citizens are doing exactly that.

    Here’s a question I’d like to pose: If a person has a tendency towards crime, where would be the most opportune place to practice crime: From within a powerful government position, or while wearing a police uniform, or as a member of (say) the Mafia?

    First prize would obviously be as a powerful government official in the police, while you are a member of the Mafia!

    The fact that someone has a position in government does NOT mean that this ordinary, fallible person like you and me has suddenly become a paragon of virtue.

    PS. Agree with Lyndall, although one could probably extend the last thought to: ‘ALL countries, organisations and humans are hypocrites about their “glorious past.”’

  6. Grant Walliser Grant Walliser 22 January 2012

    The totalitarian regime is one that is not happy until it controls your thoughts and opinions. To outlaw an opinion is to strike off down this dangerous road and I, for one, think the French have lost the plot properly. It also seems strange that we select one isolated genocide out of plenty and pass laws on that one instead of listing all genocides known and ban denial of them all. Are friends and voters really bought that cheaply and pathetically these days in a developed democracy?

  7. OneFlew OneFlew 22 January 2012

    Grant, yes, I think they are. I think it’s a problem that is in some respects intrinsic to democracy. The Labour Party in the UK, particularly under Brown and Balls, turned the identification and bribery of ever-finer slices of the electorate into an art form. Almost everyone was in their pockets. (And then, when they needed to find someone to beat up, they simply went for the top few percent. Simples.)

  8. Pointless Pointless 23 January 2012

    History chronicles a depressing continuum of suppression and oppression. The rise and fall of power, and nations, is rarely because someone won a popularity contest. ALL nations at some stage have, or continue to inflinct(ed) extreme cruelty upon their own people and those with whom they have differed. Hatred and fear of the “other” is as old as history itself and probably a condition of humankind. We are not all the same, and passionate protestations of there being only one race – the human race – are well intentioned and perhaps theoretically plausible, but extremely naive. The best that most of us can hope for is not to be the “other” in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

  9. John Patson John Patson 23 January 2012

    Couple of points here — French concern about the Armenian genocide is not new. It dates back to the 1920s because France, and Marseilles in particular, offered refuge to the survivors. It is now normal to have at least one person of Armenian origin in or near the cabinet, in the French rugby team, on the stage or heading large firms.
    French acknowledgement of the state’s role in the Jewish genocide was slow, but reached Presidential level in the 1980s, culminating in a official state apology offered by President Chirac about 10 years ago.
    The police force and railways have also formally apologised.
    No credible evidence of French involvement in the Rwandan massacre has ever been presented.
    The BBC, one of the few media organisations to report during it, certainly did not notice any.
    Once again, there are probably more Rwandan refugees from both camps in France than anywhere else.
    Long after the UN and various other bodies have packed their tents, the French continue to investigate, as the new report on the likely location of the firing of the missile which started the genocide, shows.
    I do not know where you get the idea that holocaust denial remains persistent in Europe.
    Thanks, in small part, to the law but also to public exposure, those preaching it are very quickly sidelined.
    In my experience it is much more persistent in Africa, the Middle East and South America.

  10. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 23 January 2012

    The biggest involvement of the French in the Rwandan genocide was teaching them the myth of the “glorious French Revolution” for “liberty, equality and fraternity” which was actually a bloodbath of mob rule, caused by a famine which had nothing to do with royalty, and resulted in a despot, Napoloen, getting power, and the whole of the rest of Europe eventually combining against him.

    The Rwandan society had been stable for 800m years as ONE tribe and race, with the minority Tutsis the aristocracy, and the Hutus the peasants.

  11. WSM WSM 23 January 2012

    @ John Patson: According to the US State Department, Holocaust denialism is increasing in Europe, especially among elites. And it is rife in the newer European Union countries that once formed part of the Soviet bloc, at all levels.
    The AU and Rwanda both conducted commissions of inquiry that implicated France in the massacres, undoubtedly regarding foreknowledge but also, more controversially, in terms of materiel and support operations.
    Similar claims come from Human Rights Watch and Linda Melvern, former Sunday Times Insight team investigative journo, who has written extensively about the Rwanda genocide.

  12. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 23 January 2012

    “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797).
    Denial of history does not make it so but if history is not taught then things like the Holocaust and the programs will happen again.

    Another saying that is worth taking note of, as it applies to so many people including good friends of mine.

    Also a quote from Edmund Burke:- “Nobody made a greater mistake that he who did nothing because he could only do little.”

  13. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 23 January 2012

    There were only a few hundred French soldiers in Rwanda – exactly what PRACTICAL steps could they have taken against thousands of marauding Hutus?

    Blacks can’t make up their minds – had there been a large force of French soldiers they would have complained bitterly about neo-colonialism; but , when things go wrong, they expect a few hundred to do the work of the national army and police , who were the ones that should have protected the citizens.

  14. OneFlew OneFlew 23 January 2012

    Crikey Lyndall. Interesting that you still get away with that kind of racism in South Africa.

  15. Choosing Civilisation Choosing Civilisation 23 January 2012

    Give that man some bells … as it’s worth hearing again
    “Denialists … circulate their twisted “truth” … legislate against actions resulting from an action or belief.”

    Muslim propaganda with its outrageous denialism is not confined to Europe, but forms part of its infiltration and invasion into Africa as well as the rest of the world.

    If rational human beings and their governments lack the intelligence, cognition and courage to denounce and act decisively against Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism, then ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ will certainly be a reality for all of us.

    The Nigerian Christmas Day church bombing by Islamist sect, Boko Haram (in order to implement Sharia Law) killed 37 people and wounded 57. Their attacks are increasing. Yesterday’s merciless death toll was 160.

    S. Africa is already compromised by Islamic indoctrination:
    How shocking that ABSA Banks are advertising Sharia banking!

    There is little doubt that Islamic fanatacism is one of the greatest threats to mankind today.
    ‘Good’ Muslims hide behind their burkas and remain audibly quiet in the face of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of their religion.

    Bring on the bells again for: ..” to hide from public view the poisonous strains infesting the body politic.”
    and “It is the duty of governments to protect their citizens from harm”

    Hear, hear!

    ‘Not to speak, is to speak Not to act, is to act.’

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 January 2012

    The Armenian Massacre of Christians by Turks is the first modern holocaust and ties in with the history of the First World War. The fascinating thing about history is that is is almost all about “unintended consequences” resulting from the actions of politicians.

    The result of the Turkish Ottoman Empire supporting Germany , in a last minute switch from being pals with Britain, meant they were on the losing side in the first World War, Laurence was sent to Arabia to work up their Arab vassals to fight them, and their Empire got broken up after the war.

    The “unintended consequence” was the rise of Arab Nationalism, the desire for a return of the pre- Ottoman Arab Empire, with the resultant problems of world Jihad, Palestine/Israel, and North Africa.

  17. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 25 January 2012

    The continual news reports that the Rwandan genocide was aginst Tsutsis and “moderate Hutus” is totally misleading, because the genocide was about overpopulation and the need for land – both for people and cattle.

    Rwanda got independence from the French, but not from the Roman Catholic Church – so no birth control, combined with antibiotics to cure illnesses in both people and cattle, a mouhntain encircled country with no expansion room, and a culture where cattle are not slaughtered – similar to both Hindu and Masaai culture – landed up causing a civil war.

    It was not “moderate Hutus” who were killed, but Hutus who owned land.

    And there had been 3 previous genocides over land in the decades prior to 1994.

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