Voltaire vindicated

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

 1 March 2010


The French Constitutional Council has thrown out a law passed by the French Parliament on 23 January 2012 making it a crime to deny that Turkish mistreatment of Armenians in 1915 amounted to genocide.

The law penalised denial of Armenian genocide with a €45000 fine and/or a one-year prison sentence.

On 28 February 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled that by outlawing Armenian genocide denial “Parliament has – contrary to the Constitution – undermined the principle of free speech”.

The court based its decision, in particular, on Article XI of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, stating that “freedom to express ideas and opinions is one of the most important human rights”.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he will propose a new version of the law which takes account of the court’s decision.

However, the two-stage French presidential election takes place in April and May this year and Sarkozy is currently trailing behind his Socialist rival François Hollande.

If Hollande is elected, he has undertaken to review the issue “in a spirit of conciliation”.

Both the government party, UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), and the Socialist opposition supported the Armenian genocide law in a cynical ploy to win them votes in the presidential election from the half a million ethnic Armenians resident in France. The law was also backed by the tiny Communist Party and its allies in the Parti de Gauche.

What did free speech matter  – this, in the land of Voltaire – when they might finagle a few extra votes?

However, the law was opposed by many eminent historians, including Pierre Nora, who argued that it was not for Parliaments to decide what people may or may not think about what happened in history.

It was also opposed by the former President of the Constitutional Council, Robert Badinter, a Socialist, who said that what happened in Armenia in 1915 had nothing to do with France.

Turkey takes the view that the killing of Armenians in 1915 did not constitute genocide.

Voltaire, a leading philosopher of the 18 C Enlightenment, is said to have been outraged when De l’esprit, the work of a rival philosopher, Helvétius, was condemned by the Sorbonne and burned publicly in 1759. Referring to Helvétius, he is reported to have said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it“.


You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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