On 31 October, French President, Emmanuel Macron, conducted an interview with Al Jazeera to discuss the mounting tensions between France and the Islamic world. It was an opportunity for Macron to respond to the recent suspected Islamist attacks in France, including the death of teacher, Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students, and the fatal stabbings in Nice. Macron also wanted to correct misquotes and out of context statements in the media regarding his response expressing the right of the French people to freedom of speech, including the right to caricature. Throughout the interview, Macron reinforced French freedom of speech legislation as being long established to remind the people of France, and the rest of the world, that the right to speak, draw, and act freely should be upheld regardless of the context. Failing to acknowledge the scale of offense to the Muslim religion, Macron stated that, however “shocking” one might find these cartoons, violence is abhorrent and must be condemned.
In response, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, encouraged Turks to boycott French products, stating that Macron had expressed his support for the caricatures by framing them as a legal right. Erdogan further suggested that Macron needed a mental health examination for stating that he wanted to “reform Islam” to align it with French republican values.
Christian Estrosi, Mayor of Nice, demanded “changes to the constitution” to allow for the “waging of war” on terror. French politician, Éric Ciotti, asserted that the “…country is at war!…We must annihilate the Islamists.”
However, prominent politician and feminist, Clémentine Autain, condemned Macron’s response and accused him of “trampling liberty and democracy underfoot.” Bruno Tertrais, of the French Foundation for Strategic Research, criticised Macron’s France-first approach, stating that “France itself does not always consult its allies or seek their support before taking diplomatic initiatives.”
The interview saw Macron repeatedly emphasise the rights of French Muslims to live safely and peacefully in France, whilst detracting from the great offence caused by the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Macron consistently described the reaction of the Muslim community as “shock,” undervaluing the gravity of the situation. Macron steered much of the interview towards extremism and used a rhetoric that could be construed as separatist and damaging to the already tense relations between France and the Islamic world.
Tensions between France and the Islamic world have escalated since the shootings at the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and the more recent incidents in Paris and Nice, with Macron calling them “Islamist terrorist attack[s].” Macron has consistently condemned the violent retaliation to the caricatures, while failing to condemn the caricatures themselves. Macron is a stalwart defender of France’s historic legislation on freedom of speech, stating that the drawings were done under the sovereign laws of the French people. Before the interview, Macron had been accused of approving of the drawings because of his refusal to condemn them or to empathise with the offence they caused to the Muslim community. He used the interview as an opportunity to respond to this criticism by citing misquotes and out of context statements as the reason for this.
France is now in a precarious position as there has been a call for boycotts and Macron has further damaged France’s global relations by stating that other countries have “crushed the hands of the cartoonists,” with their restrictions on freedom of speech and that “Islam…is currently undergoing a profound crisis in the entire world.” Whilst Macron condemned reactionary violence, his response risks extremist retaliation for his defence of the right to caricature. By permitting the future publication of caricatures, Macron risks distancing the French Muslim community.
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