A hundred years ago, France let go of the Armenians

france kemal ataturk

It was a hundred years ago – France and Kemalist Turkey signed an agreement which sealed the abandonment of Cilicia and with it the Armenian population who had placed their hopes on the “eldest daughter of the Church”. 

On this occasion, it was appropriate to return to this dark page in our history and to be able to draw lessons from it. 

Just a hundred years ago, France negotiated and signed an agreement ending the Franco-Turkish war with the Grand Assembly of Turkey, an unrecognized authority, in the hands of Kemalist forces.

With this agreement, France was the first power in the Entente to recognize the government led by Mustafa Kemal.

Deeply weakened by the outcome of the First World War, France no longer had the human and financial resources for its ambition. She longed only to rebuild herself and find peace.

The French want their soldiers back when the Great War ended in 1918, but blood still flowed in the Near and Middle East, where national insurrection and revolutionary struggles prolonged the war.

In the East, France mobilized on several fronts: in Syria and Turkey. It therefore encountered difficulties in the area of ​​its mandate, both against Kemal in Cilicia and against Fayçal.

He proclaimed himself king of Syria and rejected the French mandate committing to new confrontations.

Kemal launched a Turkish national reaction against the ambitions of the European powers and against the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres.

He also organized a national reconquest and gathered weapons and soldiers, calling for a  Turkey for the Turks – This is how the Kemalist nationalist movement was born.

The French troops (made up of Armenian legionaries and Algerian soldiers sensitive to Turkish propaganda) and Kemalists faced each other in Cilicia and the Turks are quickly gained the advantage.

The Franco-Kemalist was becoming more and more costly and Paris did not have the means to engage in a sustained struggle against both the Turks and the Syrians, and thus preferred to deal with Kemal.

In 1920, an armistice was signed between France and the Kemalists, but they did not respect it and it rather amplified the clashes.

France, weakened by the War, envisaged with fear a renewal of military operations in Cilicia, which had already caused many losses on finances and human life, and thus chose to pursue a policy of conciliation.

In 1921, France then decided to conduct direct talks with the Kemalists. 

We can understand the argument of the unfavorable balance of power, France comes out of the First World War bloodless, it did not have the means to face two guerrilla forces in both Syria and Cilicia.

But wasn’t this a way for Paris to harm their British partner (and rival) than to draw closer to the Kemalists? 

The French and the British may be allies, but they did not take the same position vis-à-vis the Kemalist nationalist movement.

If London underestimated its importance, Paris was in a hurry to sign an armistice.

In the spring of 1920, the British were ready to resume war against the Turks, but public opinion was against it. And the French were opposed to it.

The Greeks alone embark on a two-year war with the tragic consequences that we know.

Divergent interests fueled dissensions between  Allies that benefited the Kemalists.

One can easily think that if the Franco-British agreement had been real, it would have supported Greece.

But France chose to encourage Kemalist pride by complying with its demands and even became Ankara’s supplier of arms and material free of charge against its Greek ally!

London sees this Franco-Turkish agreement as a stab in the back because it was a separate peace.

Indeed, under the pact signed by the Allies in 1915, they were prohibited from entering into peace agreements without consulting each other.

For his part, the French president of the council Aristide Briand was focused on domestic politics but also on the reparations to be obtained from Germany.

France showed itself to be tough and uncompromising with Germany by imposing on it the “dictated peace” of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as heavy reparations, but it knelt in front of Kemalist Turkey, even when the balance of power was favorable.

Aristide Briand sends Franklin Bouillon, former journalist, former deputy and former minister, to congratulate Kemal on his victory against the Greeks, who are nevertheless allies of France.

France feared political instability in Turkey, seeing it as a risk to its material interests and its privileged position and being able to build a relationship of trust with Kemal as he played  with Franklin Bouillon, the emissary sent by Aristide Briand.

Franklin Bouillon arrived in Ankara with a case of cognac as a means to forge an understanding with Kemal, which fascinates him. He is also described as a Turkophile.

The distinction between winners and losers in the Great War does not exist for members of this delegation, and they deal with Kemal on an equal footing. These negotiations are conducted in a very opaque manner.

The Turks were aware of the enthusiasm they aroused, which is why they themselves proposed to Aristide Briand to send Franklin Bouillon, knowing that the latter is already on their side.

By accepting all Turkish demands without obtaining the fulfillment of French demands, Franklin Bouillon placed France in a position of weakness and deference, especially as the Kemalist leader was on the ascendancy.  

France therefore clearly did not pursue a winning policy against the Turkish nationalist movement.

The winning country of the First World War, and said to have the most powerful army in the world at that time, did not protect its mandate, nor the populations who lived there, particularly the Armenians who suffered from genocide.

Without consulting her British ally, France signed a more advantageous bilateral agreement

Finally, France legitimized an unrecognized government even though the latter was waging a nationalist war against French positions.

French indulgence was seen as a policy of abdication and weakness that served its true interests.

Thus, these Angora accords were the dress rehearsal of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which was the diplomatic death warrant on the Armenian question.

The Angora Accord and then the Lausanne Treaty illustrated a policy of renunciation – that of France in 1921 than that of the Allies in 1923.

The scope of this agreement, however little known, is decisive: it confers legitimacy on a revolutionary government that is not recognized internationally. Note that it is on this government that modern Turkey is based on.

Paris’ efforts to win the sympathy for the new Turkish power will not prove to be a winner. France did not gain anything in the exchange, in fact, quite the contrary!

The few vague promises of economic benefits contained in the Angora accord were never honored.

The privileged economic partnership with French companies promised by the Turks did not fully materialized.

On the other hand, the Turks were the winners: they obtained the departure of French troops from Cilicia and the end of war.

Prisoners were immediately released and amnestied too.

France renounced the disarmament of populations and gangs, as well as the constitution of a Turkish police force assisted by French officers. France was also humiliated by the chauvinist and revengeful attitude of the Turks who attacked her interests (schools, hospitals, French private property) throughout Turkish territory.

The failure of the Angora deal for France was evident barely a year after it was signed.

Not content with not honoring the terms of its agreement with France, Turkey created difficulties for it in the Syrian mandate.

In Damascus, the Turks were trying to exacerbate public opinion with propaganda, encouraging Syrians to revolt.

Franklin Bouillon did not obtain any guarantee of protection for minorities that France had encouraged to seek refuge in Cilicia after the Armenian genocide.

For the military in place, which denounced this departure, it was the abandonment of the “comrades in arms”, of these Armenian volunteers who had formed the Eastern Legion.

France and the Allies, however, pledged in May 1915 to punish the perpetrators of the genocide.

In 1920 and 1921, they once again had the mandate to protect Christian minorities, and yet these surviving populations found themselves delivered to the vindictiveness of their former executioners.

It was once again exodus or death that awaits them. 

The author wants to acknowledge the impact of the following book on his artice: “Aurore Bruna, L’accord d’Angora de 1921, théâtre des relations franco-kémalistes et du destin de la Cilicie, Cerf, 2018.”

Tigrane Yegavian is a French-Armenian journalist. He is an Armenian Network State  citizen and an expert at its Foreign Affairs Think Tank. 

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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