YEREVAN: French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday urged Turkey to take responsibility for the 1915 massacre of Armenians, calling its refusal to recognise the deaths as genocide as “unacceptable”.
Sarkozy's comments, issued at the start of his first state visit to Armenia, whose diaspora represents a large voting minority in France, come months before a presidential election which he heads into with approval ratings at a low.
“Turkey, which is a great country, would be honorable to revisit its history like the other great countries in the world have done: Germany, France,” Sarkozy said at the top of a two-day, three nation swing through the Caucasus.
France has recognised mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman empire as genocide a decade ago, a bold step that pressure from Turkey has prevented in countries with a large Armenian diaspora such as the United States.
Turkey says those killed were the victims of war, and has downgraded relations with nations that dared to disagree.
Sarkozy however left no room for ambiguity after visiting the National Genocide Museum in Armenian capital to pay respect to the massacre victims and plant a tree in the memorial garden.
“The genocide of Armenians is a historic reality that was recognised by France. Collective denial is even worse than individual denial,” he said at a joint appearance with Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisyan.
“We are always stronger when we look our history in the face, and denial is not acceptable.”
Asked whether France should adopt a law prosecuting anyone who denies that the massacres were “genocide”, Sarkozy replied that “if Turkey revisited its history, looked it in the face, with its shadows and highlights, this recognition of the genocide would be sufficient.”
”But if Turkey will not do this, then without a doubt it would be necessary to go further,” he said.
Sarkozy angered Turkey ahead of his election in 2007 by backing a law aimed at prosecuting those who refused to recognise the event as a genocide.
The French lower house of parliament later rejected the measure, infuriating an Armenian diaspora of some 500,000 people.
Sarkozy has also indicated his ambition to bring Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan forward in the stalled peace process over the tiny Nagorny Karabakh region.
But just as the French leader urged the two rivals to “take the risk of peace” in an interview on Wednesday, pro-Armenian authorities that control Karabakh said a soldier was killed by Azerbaijani forces.
Baku responded Thursday with the accusation that two soldiers were shot dead from the Armenian side.
Seventeen soldiers have now been reported killed this year along the ceasefire line in Karabakh.
Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized the territory from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s that left some 30,000 dead.
Despite years of talks since the 1994 ceasefire, the two sides have still to sign a final peace deal.
Sarkozy was to dine with Sarkisyan later Thursday and continue his tour of Caucasus states Azerbaijan and Georgia on Friday.