|Armenians in France have been enthusiastic in their support for a bill penalising denial of the genocide [EPA]
France's constitutional council has ruled as unconstitutional a proposed law to punish denial that the mass killings of Armenians during World War I was genocide, on the grounds that such a law would infringe on freedom of expression.
Tuesday's ruling by the country's highest constitutional authority was welcomed by Turkey, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose party had put forward the bill, quickly pledged to draft a new version of the law.
France formally recognised the 1915-16 killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone refuting that.
The country's lower house approved the measure in December, and the senate followed in January.
The law struck down on Tuesday had set a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($59,000) for those who deny or "outrageously minimise" the killings, putting such action on a par with denial of the Jewish holocaust in World War II.
However, the constitutional council labelled the law an "unconstitutional attack on freedom of expression", and said it wished "not to enter into the realm of responsibility that belongs to historians".
Turkey quickly welcomed the ruling on the law which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has denounced as "tantamount to discrimination and racism".
Turkey's foreign minister said it was “pleasing that a grave mistake has been corrected by France's highest legal body".
In a written statement, Ahmet Davutoglu said he hoped France would adopt "a constructive approach in regard to the handling of the conflict between Turkey and Armenia in a just and scientific manner and contributes to its solution rather than deepening it".
"Such an approach would contribute to improvement of Turkish-French relations in every field," he said.
However, Sarkozy's office quickly put out a statement saying he had ordered the government to prepare a new draft, taking into account the council's decision.
Sarkozy noted "the great disappointment and profound sadness of all those who welcomed with hope and gratitude the adoption of this law aimed at providing protection against revisionism".
The head of a French Armenian organisation sharply criticised the ruling, saying it was the result of Turkish lobbying.
"We have been totally outraged by the constitutionalcCouncil's decision at its very core, which is based on politics rather than on legal grounds," said Franck Mourad Papazian, president of the Council of Co-ordination of Armenian Organisations in France.
Armenia says that at least 1.5 million Armenians died when Ottoman Turks deported them from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert and elsewhere in 1915 to 1916. They were killed or died from starvation or disease.
Turkey estimates the total to be about 500,000. It admits that atrocities were committed but argues that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people and argues that many people on both sides died amid the chaos of World War I, in which all sides suffered.