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France's Armenia genocide law put on hold

Franco-Turkish activists have protested agianst the bill near the French Senate [Reuters]A new French law punishing denial of the "Armenian genocide" has been put on hold after politicians from across party lines opposed to the legislation demanded that its constitutionality be examined.

Turkey reacted furiously last week when the Senate approved the law which threatens with jail anyone in France who denies that the 1915 to 1916 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turk forces amounted to genocide.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's office brushed off angry threats of retaliation by Turkey and vowed to enforce the law within a fortnight.

However, on Tuesday two separate groups of French politicians who oppose the legislation - from both the Senate and the lower house of parliament - said they had formally requested the constitutional council to examine the law.

"This is an atomic bomb for the Elysee [the presidential office] which didn't see it coming," Lionel Tardy, a deputy from Sarkozy’s own party, said.

The groups said they each had gathered 72 signatures, more than the minimum 60 signatures required to ask the council to test the law's constitutionality.

The petition drew support from several parties, with many from both the governing UMP party and from the opposition Socialists signing.

Jacques Mezard, leader of the Radical Party of the Left, initiated one of the petitions, drawing support from most MPs from his party.

The council is obliged to deliver its judgement within a month, but this can be reduced to eight days if the government deems the matter urgent.

Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, immediately welcomed the development.

"I hope the constitutional council will do what is necessary," Erdogan was quoted as saying by NTV a private Turkish television company.

Gul said he was "not expecting the French from the very beginning to let their country be overshadowed" by the genocide law.

Retaliation threatened

France has already officially recognised the killings as genocide, but the new law would go further by punishing anyone who denies this with up to a year in jail and a fine of $57,000.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in 1915 and 1916 by the forces of Turkey's former Ottoman Empire.

Turkey disputes the figure, arguing that 500,000 died, and denies this was genocide, ascribing the toll to fighting and starvation during World War I, and accusing the Armenians of siding with Russian invaders.

Erdogan last week denounced the law as "tantamount to discrimination and racism" and warned that his government would punish Paris with unspecified retaliatory measures if Sarkozy signed it into law.

Ankara has already halted political and military co-operation with France and was threatening to cut off economic and cultural ties.

Trade between the two states was worth $15.5bn in 2010, with several hundred French businesses operating in Turkey.

Armenia hailed the passage of the bill through the French senate, with President Serzh Sarkisian writing in a letter to Sarkozy that "France has reaffirmed its greatness and power, its devotion to universal human values".

About 20 countries have officially recognised the killings as genocide. Amnesty International, the UK-based rights group, has criticised the French law, saying it would violate freedom of expression.

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