A French Senate panel dealt a blow Wednesday to the government's plans to make it illegal to deny that mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago amounted to genocide.
In a striking development, the Commission of Laws in the Senate _ the upper house of parliament _ voted 23-9, with 8 abstentions, that such a bill, if passed, could violate constitutional protections including freedom of speech.
"We consider that if this law was passed, there would be a large risk of it being unconstitutional," said Jean-Pierre Sueur, the commission head. "We cannot write history with laws. Freedom of expression must be respected," Sueur said.
The panel vote, while a nonbinding recommendation, was the first legislative setback for the bill that has soured relations between France and Turkey since the National Assembly, the lower house, passed it last month.
The measure, floated by President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives despite a visceral outcry from Turkey, goes to the full Senate for debate Monday. The opposition Socialists had in the past also expressed support.
Officials at the Senate press office said that in the vast majority of cases the full chamber follows the recommendations of the Commission of Laws.
However, rejection by the Senate does not necessarily kill a measure that the lower house _ the most powerful in France _ wants passed into law. The National Assembly can resurrect the bill and try again, and eventually gets the last word.
France formally recognized the 1915 killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for denying it. The Assembly bill would set punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to euro45,000 ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimize" the killings _ placing such denial on par with those of the Holocaust.
France is home to an estimated 500,000 people of Armenian origin.
The bill has sparked a show of animosity between the two countries, with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing the French of "genocide" during France's 132-year colonial rule in Algeria. Turkey also briefly recalled its ambassador to Paris for consultations, while suspending military and economic cooperation.
Two scenarios are now most likely when the French Senate debates the bill Monday, Senate press officials said. Senators could ignore the panel vote and pass the bill, putting it on a fast track to becoming law, or they could reject the bill, handing it to a commission from both houses to iron out differences.
The second option would greatly slow the legislative process. A freeze on all but the most critical legislation goes into effect in early March ahead of spring presidential and legislative elections.
In a statement, the commission said: "There was a genocide, and the commission wants to express its infinite respect for the Armenian people, and the terrible experiences that they have endured."
But the panel also expressed doubts about "the legitimacy of the intervention of the legislature in the field of history" and suggested that commemorations or legislative resolutions might be a better way to express sympathy for the suffering than laws to criminalize some types of speech.
Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris.