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Mourad Papazian and Ara Toranian, two faces of the french armenian lobby

Mourad Papazian and Ara Toranian, two faces of the french armenian lobby

24.01.2016 • France •

French President François Hollande’s commitment to the Armenian genocide results from both his “intimate belief”, as well as long-time links with two complementary yet opposite personalities.

It is said that switching off the Eiffel Tower on the night of 24th April 2015 was their idea: Franck and Jean-Marc, also called Mourad and Ara by the Armenian community, always work hand in hand. When one of them appears, the other one is not far – both are the inevitable protagonists of the Armenian lobby in France.

At 61, Ara Toranian is the eldest of the two. He studied literature and philosophy, has been running for the past 22 years the “Nouvelles d’Arménie” (Armenian News) monthly, and says he remains “influenced” by his formative youth years spent with the non-communist far-left and agitprop.

I cannot understand why denialism is a criminal offence for the Jewish Holocaust, but not for the Armenian genocide”, says Ara Toranian.

Born in 1964, Mourad Papazian belongs to the generation of marketing and communication strategies rather than that of graffiti, pamphlets and pots of glue. Like his father, who is a  prominent personality of the party, the son of Henri Papazian belongs to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, otherwise known as Tashnag, founded in the late 19th Century and about which it is said that aspiring members swear their allegiances to the (Armenian) motherland upon a … handgun.

Aznavour and Devedjian

I am tougher and more demanding than Ara”, answers Mourad Papazian, who established privileged relations with François Hollande, with whom he worked from 2009 till 2011. Still, he is careful to stress that “it would be wrong to overate  (his) role” with the French President who is now helped, on this delicate matter, by young Constance Rivière, a graduate form France’s prestigious school of public administration ENA. “Before anything else, I am a realist  Mourad is more optimistic than me” tells Ara Toranian.

Mourad Papazian is the heir of a party which has a long history, he can rely on a real base, he enjoys a broad support” explains Béatrice Ananian, who presides the French Armenian Blue Cross, one of the organisations close to Tashnag. “Toranian is a charismatic speaker who seeks what is good for his people. Papazian acts within the French framework”, comments a person who knows a lot about Armenian institutions.

As a matter of fact, Mourad and Ara both oppose and complement each other: “the first one relies on the ranks and files of Tashnag and on the socialists. The second rallies individuals or small groups who feel they do not fit with the ultra-nationalism and centralism of Tashnag” explains another person.

In the absence of a party, Ara Toranian happily relies on icons of the community, such as former minister Patrick Devedjian (from right wing party, LR/UMP) and singer Charles Aznavour. Hasn’t he actually given a hand to the singer for “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, the long text that Aznavour signed in Le Monde a few days before the 24th April anniversary? The political style of the Armenian News editor is recognizable, more aligned with the Armenian government than with Tashnag. But as the centenary drew closer, Ara Toranian and Mourad Papazian were both elected to co-head the CCAF, Coordination Committee of Armenian Organisations in France, the equivalent of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) for Armenians, and this highlights the determination of the community to stand united during the 2015 commemorative year.

Terror attacks to « break the silence »

 From silence to acknowledgement, the path chosen by Armenians living in France was not smooth: it was marked by bitter infighting and anger.

The two men are first cousins, they grew up sharing the heavy silences of their orphaned grand father who escaped the genocide and arrived in France during the twenties. In that family, everybody stands with Tashnag – this is not a matter for discussion. Thus, when Ara opts for the far-left, the Papazian family will perceive this almost as a betrayal as they are deeply anti-communist. “When I was 16/17, I had to experience the dreadful contrast between my political awareness and the frightening state of moral annihilation in which the generation of my parents was living”, recalls Ara Toranian.

The real diplomatic warfare that Turks and Armenians wage within the confines of the UN leads to nothing. Any attempt, by the Armenians, to voice their cause crashes against the wall of Turkish propaganda.

After the days of silence come the days of rage. The surge, during the 70’s, of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia ASALA (a nationalist Marxist-Leninist movement) will cause a second rift in the family. Terror attacks target many Turk diplomats in Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Burgas  and Beirut, although not all of them are perpetrated by Asala. Between 1975 and 1984, Asala’s toll will amount to 46 dead and 299 wounded.

We had no choice; violence was our last option – Ara Toranian

For Ara, this is a wake-up call. “We had no choice, violence was our last option” explains the nephew and defector. He denies having built up the “political and legal showcase” of the terror group via Hay Baykar (Armenian Struggle) newspaper, where his then wife, Valérie, also works – years later, she will run “Elle” magazine. Recently, as the new editor of the Revue des deux mondes, she published a book, “L’Étrangère”, in which she recounts the story of her grandmother, a survivor of the genocide. “We supported the armed struggle, as it allowed us to raise our head”, her former husband, Ara Toranian, likes to comment.

Moreover, Tashnag also has its “commandos of Armenian genocide avengers” (29 dead and many wounded). “Sixty years after the genocide, this was a desperate means of action”, confirms Mourad Papazian, who was under 10 at the time of the first terror attacks. Thus, in terms of the “armed struggle”, the latter does not have quite the same “legitimacy” as Ara, for the Armenian community, nor the same “terrorist” label for Turkish diplomats.

Death threats and car bombs

The threats that targeted Mourad Papazian, including a raid that was most probably conducted by Turkish intelligence services, date back to only 2006. But six years later, here it goes again:

“A tall, hefty guy made sure I noticed he was conspicuously everywhere I went: at my front door, to the restaurant, to the office- a way to say « I know who you are, where you live and what your do », in order to scare me”.

Nothing to do with what Ara and Valérie Toranian went through during the 80’s. Their car was bombed on 2 occasions. The first time, the 3kg hexogen explosive device is set on the bottom of their car. They will drive through Paris without noticing anything particular. However, on the second occasion, the bomb explodes but does not hurt them. “Ultra-nationalist mafia strongman Catli was ordered to eliminate us, he died in 1996 in the Sursurluk accident. Turkey organized national funerals for him” says Ara Toranian.

It should be said that things went out of hand for ASALA. Shortly before these Turkish reprisals against Ara Toranian took place, the Orly attack, perpetrated by ASALA in July 1983, left 8 dead and 56 wounded, mostly civilians. “This had nothing to do anymore with what we were fighting for”, explains Ara Toranian. “ASALA was no longer targeting the Turkish State but the country which welcomed us, that is, France, and this was unacceptable. Activists didn’t know what was going anymore”. All the more so that, behind the scenes, at the time, Hafez el-Assad’s Syrian services is pulling strings to protest against French presence in Lebanon.

Even today, few Armenians distance themselves from ASALA’s terror attacks – at least those of this first phase. One frequently hears people say “these attacks allowed us to break the silence. And forced the Turks to acknowledge what we were living through”.

The years of struggle will be followed by wasted years of infighting and rivalry. In France, besides the historical strife between Tashnag nationalists and the communists, 3 main currents run through the community: the FRA-Tashnag, close to the French Socialist Party, the ADL-Ramgavar, close to the right wing UMP/LR, and the social-democrat Hentshak, with centre-left leanings.

There has even been some fights between these different currents- Armenians can be hot-blooded.

The Armenian equivalent of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF)

 In 2001, the French Parliament votes a law that acknowledges the Armenian genocide. It is a victory for the Armenian community, mainly for Ara Toranian and the Papazians, father and son. Ankara cancels public contracts with France and applies economic sanctions. French business working with Turkish business start mobilizing against the “Armenian lobby”

The Armenian community in France (some 500 000 people according to rough estimates) is very excited. It decides to give itself a more ambitious representative organisation, dreams of an Armenian equivalent of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions CRIF. This will be the CCAF, Coordination Committee of Armenian Organisations in France, an institution which takes over from the smaller 24th April Committee (Comité du 24 avril), founded in 1994 and the architect of the 2001 French Law on the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Some Turkish pressure groups are also much better organized, with increased means. Including on French territory. The mood is highly sensitive. Armenian activists leave nothing to chance. Any historian who might have not used the word “genocide” is likely to end up in the eye of the storm. According to the activists, there is no such thing as “freedom of speech” on that point, even if this really ruffles academics’ feathers.

All our actions haven’t always been very smart,” acknowledges Ara Toranian retrospectively. “But when faced with anything that remotely looks like denialism, you’re on edge. How could it be otherwise? For so many years, we were so powerless!” What also happens is that the most politicized amongst the community start seeing traitors everywhere. Hrant Dink told me that when he went to Marseilles in 2005, Armenian activists who thought he was an under-cover Turkish agent heckled him and shouted at him.

In those days, Prime Minister Erdogan was touring Europe to campaign against the law on the criminalisation of the denial of genocides. Dink was treading a slightly similar path. We told him we did not need him to come and relay Turkish propaganda, and that he was not helping us by doing that” justifies Mourad Papazian, who specifies that no member of Tashnag would be amongst those who heckled Dink.

Along with Gérard Chaliand and others, Ara Toranian then tries to put things right. In November 2006, he organises a conference where the Istanbul Armenian journalist and activist is given a chance to explain his point of view. Two months later would have been too late as Turkish ultra-nationalists assassinate Hrant Dink on 19th January 2007.

The main problem with Mourad and Ara is that they never went to Turkey and do not really know what drives Turks – Varoujan Siripian, director of Europe&Orient magazine

The main problem with Mourad and Ara is that they never went to Turkey and they do not actually know what drives Turk people” says Varoujan Siripian, a former Armenian from Istanbul who left Turkey in the 70’s.

In 2009, they certainly did not foresee that the Turk government was about to sign a peace accord with Armenia, also known as the “Protocols” which, according to some sources, might have cancelled any possibility for Turkey to claim land.

Armenians living in France remember the incident that took place when, in the middle of the signing of the Protocols, during his visit in Paris, Armenian President Serge Sarkissian bowed to a statue of Komitas and the demonstrators called Sarkissian a “traitor to Armenia” (“tavadjan”). A few scuffles with French police forces are even said to have taken place. The Papazians, father and son, who were present at the ceremony, deny they ever uttered such an insult. Nevertheless, the relations between the co-president of the CCAF and Serge Sarkissian somehow cooled down in the wake of the incident.

Turkish lobby in France

In 2011, the French Senate approves the Law on the criminalisation of the denial of genocides. On 21st January, it is estimated that at least 15 000 Europeans of Turkish origin demonstrate against it in Paris. “The demonstration was supervised by the Grey Wolves (ultra-nationalists of the Nationalist Movement Party NMP/MHP) and in the cars, some of the demonstrators had weapons” recalls Mourad Papazian who, so he says, had “some of his men” in the crowd.

The Law on the criminalisation of denial divides the French political class and intellectual world. Eventually, in 2012, the French constitutional council rejects it.

This is a terrible blow for Ara Toranian and Mourad Papazian, who reject the arguments put forth by the organisation Liberté pour l’histoire along with personalities such as Robert Badinter, Jack Lang and Pierre Nora who, with many others, have opposed the law.

“The President has just called me to reassure me as to his loyalty to his commitments. (…) He reasserted that he would never renege on his commitments. (…) The Government’s policy is that of Hollande – not of Fabius” -Franck-Mourad Papazian’s post on Facebook, July 2012

The following summer, François Hollande is now at the Élysée Palace. On 5th July, during a press conference that Laurent Fabius is holding with his Turkish counterpart, the French Foreign Affairs minister seems to be dropping this law. Mourad Papazian immediately sms François Hollande. Two days later, the co-president of the CCAF and the French President speak to each other over the phone. On Facebook, Mourad Papazian tries to reassure his followers, he gives accounts of this conversation, reassures them on the President’s “loyalty” The French Presidency was most probably not amused…

Tougher days still to come?

Invited as guest of honour at the Annual Dinner of the CCAF held on 28th January 2015, François Hollande’s presence launched, in a way, the ceremonies of the centenary of the Armenian genocide.

That evening, in his speech, the French President calls for the reconciliation with the Turks. There is a slight uneasiness in the assembly. But then, more surprisingly, Mourad Papazian endorses the reconciliation theme. This comes as a surprise as it tends to be Ara Toranian who usually supports the opening of a Turk-Armenian dialogue.

François Hollande and I know each other very well. We trust each other – Mourad Papazian.

We had long conversations with François Hollande, we know each other very well. We trust each other,” specifies Mourad Papazian, who happens to be one of the shareholders of French daily Libération. “It is important to be constructive. François Hollande is unambiguous”

Apart from the presence of former tutelary soviet power, incarnated by Vladimir Putin, the French President was virtually the only foreign head of state attending the 24th April 2015 ceremonies in Erevan. With Ara Toranian and Franck-Mourad Papazian at his side, of course.

Which kind of reparations should be demanded to Turkey that has still not recognized the Armenian genocide? Mourad Papazian holds an extremist stance on this topic. He says that the “Armenian territories occupied by Turkey” after the Turk-Russian accords of 1921, should be handed back. Under the supervision of Tashnag, a group of lawyers is said to have already advanced in their work on the reparations that should be claimed.

Ara Toranian prefers to tread a “common dream” line, formulated and signed by Armenian and Turk personalities, which asks the Turkish government to open its frontier with Armenia and grant privileged access to one or two of its harbours…

As for President Hollande, in 2015 he assured both his Armenian interlocutors that the Law on the criminalisation of the denial of genocides has not fallen into oblivion, that a new green paper could emerge should the European Court for Human Rights allow it.

One can reasonably have doubts as to such an outcome, given the fact that, in early 2016, sparing Ankara’s sensitivity seems to be one of the strategic priorities for France and the European Union. How Toranian and Papazian will manage to still have President Hollande’s ear in 2016 remains unknown.

Ariane Bonzon

Translation: Laurence Mazure

Photo: French président François Hollande with  Ara Toranian, Mourad Papazian et Alexis Govcyan  (2013, Elysée Palace, Paris) (DR)

Original version in French : Mourad Papazian et Ara Toranian, les deux visages du lobby arménien en France (dates back to 2.05.2015) 

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