France plans to ban a Turkish ultra-nationalist group known as the Grey Wolves, the interior minister said Monday, in a move that risks further straining already tense relations with Ankara.
The dissolution was announced after a memorial centre to mass killings of Armenians during World War I was defaced with graffiti including the name of the Grey Wolves at the weekend.
The move to ban the Grey Wolves — seen as a wing of a party allied to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — will be put to the French cabinet on Wednesday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told a parliamentary committee.
“To put it mildly, we are talking about a particularly aggressive group,” Darmanin said.
“It deserves to be dissolved,” he added, saying the move meant that actions or meetings by the group can be punished by fines or imprisonment.
His announcement came after a memorial centre outside Lyon to the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, regarded as genocide by Armenia, was defaced with pro-Turkish slogans including “Grey Wolves” and “RTE” in reference to Erdogan.
The incident in the town of Decines-Charpieu came against a background of sharp tension in France between its Armenian and Turkish communities over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey has strongly backed its ally Azerbaijan in the conflict over the region that is part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by Armenian separatists since a 1990s war as the Soviet Union broke up.
Four people were wounded outside Lyon last Wednesday in clashes between suspected Turkish nationalists and Armenians protesting against Azerbaijan’s military offensive.
Armenians have long campaigned for the mass killings of their ancestors in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to be recognised as genocide.
In an apparent new act of vandalism, the Armenian consulate in Lyon on Monday was daubed in yellow paint with “1915” and a heart-shaped emoji followed by “RTE”.
The Committee of the Defence of the Armenian Cause, or CDCA, welcomed the ban.
“French citizens of Armenian origin were waiting for this decision because they’re scared,” CDCA president Jules Boyadijan told AFP.
“They didn’t think they’d be living in fear in France.”
– ‘No place in our country’ –
The move by Darmanin risks further stoking tensions with Ankara.
In Turkey, the Grey Wolves are closely linked to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli which has a political alliance with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Analysts see the MHP as critical to Erdogan’s continued domination of Turkey, with the support of Bahceli a key factor behind his victory in 2018’s presidential election.
The Grey Wolves are regarded as the militant wing of the MHP and caused havoc on the streets in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s when its members frequently clashed with leftist activists.
Those affiliated to the Grey Wolves, known as Bozkurtlar in Turkish, and MHP traditionally show their loyalty with a hand gesture in which the little and index fingers are raised.
Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish nationalist who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, has also been linked to the movement.
“It is excellent news,” said French MP Yael Braun-Pivet who chairs the laws committee where Darmanin made the announcement. “These violent groups have no place in our country,” she wrote on Twitter.
There have been weeks of tensions between France and Turkey, which reached a peak last month after the beheading of a French schoolteacher who showed his pupils cartoons mocking Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.
In the wake of the killing, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a passionate defence of free speech, including the right to mock religion, prompting Erdogan to question his mental health.
France responded by recalling its ambassador to Ankara for consultations.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera on Saturday, Macron accused Turkey of adopting a “bellicose” stance towards its NATO allies, saying tensions could ease if Erdogan showed respect and did not tell lies.
Following a spate of Islamist attacks in recent weeks, France has also been taking steps to ban radical Islamist groups and to cut off foreign funds to them.
In Compiegne, a town in northern France, two wild boar heads were found Monday on the building site of new offices for a French-Turkish cultural exchange association, which said it had filed charges for trespassing and “an Islamophobic act”.