On November 4, the French government announced that it was banning the Turkish nationalist group known as the “Grey Wolves” (Bozkurtlar in Turkish). The decision was prompted by two nationalist marches in the suburbs of Lyon, as well as an act of ethnically motivated vandalism against a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. The memorial was defaced with graffiti that included the group’s name and the letters “RTE,” thought to be the initials of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current president of Turkey.
French officials also claimed that members of this organization had made “violent threats” against Armenians in France.
The same day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded with a statement denying existence of the group. “As a matter of fact, it is known that there is no such a movement called ‘Grey Wolves,’ whose dissolution was announced today by the French Government,” the statement began.
“Attempts to resort to imaginary decisions, presuming the existence of such a movement or formation based on some individuals and their actions, reflects the latest contradictory psychology that this country lives in.”
The statement goes on to accuse France of hypocrisy when it comes to matters of free speech, and further alleges the country shows tolerance toward sympathizers of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, the United States and some other nations call a terror group.
The claim that there is no such organization as the Grey Wolves is false.
Although it is not clear what presence, if any, the group has in France, it has a long-documented history, which can be found online.
The Grey Wolves group was founded in the late 1960s as the militant youth wing of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party and acquired a reputation for politically motivated violence in Turkey, particularly against left-wing figures. One of the group’s most notorious actions was the 1978 pogrom targeting the Alevis, a heterodox Muslim religious minority group in Turkey, in the city of Kahramanmaras. The violence left nearly 200 people dead. In 1981, a Grey Wolves member, Mehmet Ali Agca, attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
The Grey Wolves are not a particularly secretive group. Members hold public events wearing their symbols and displaying their distinctive salute, which mimics a wolf’s head. There are numerous videos on YouTube of the group’s supporters holding public events.
In March 2019, the Austrian government banned the Grey Wolves salute along with symbols supporting other organizations, including Hamas and the PKK. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the ban but did not deny the existence of the group.
“We do not accept this and strongly condemn it,” the statement began. “It is scandalous that the ‘Grey Wolves’ salute, which is the symbol of a legal political party in Turkey (MHP), is on the same list as the symbol of the PKK, a bloody terrorist organization.”
Turkish ultranationalists in France vandalized an Armenian memorial and held large marches in two French towns on October 28. According to Vice, footage of the marches was posted online with wolf emojis and other references to the Grey Wolves.
The marches took place near Lyons, one in a heavily Armenian-populated area, and authorities speculated that the marchers were seeking to intimidate or provoke a clash with the local Armenian community. Earlier in the day, four people were injured when fights broke out between Armenians, who were protesting against Turkish-ally Azerbaijan’s role in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkish nationalists.