OPINION: Who's to blame for Macron's war of words with the Muslim world?

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OPINION: Who's to blame for Macron's war of words with the Muslim world?
In this file photo taken on December 4, 2019 France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) gestures as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks past him during a family photo as part of the NATO summit

With the Islamic world in a war of words with the French president and countries including Turkey calling for a boycott of French products, commentator John Lichfield looks at the mistakes that have been made on both sides and what Emmanuel Macron could do to ease tensions abroad, but most importantly at home.


A war of words may sound harmless enough. Not this one.

President Emmanuel Macron is being verbally attacked –  insulted in some cases - by the leaders of several Islamic countries for defending France’s right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that  Macron was “mentally unwell”. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, said that the French president had “chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens.”

The immediate cause of their anger was a brief passage in  Macron’s hommage last Wednesday to Samuel Paty, the teacher brutally murdered after he showed Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of Mohammed to a civics class in the western Paris suburbs.

Macron said: “We will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away.”

He also said that “liberty can only exist by ending hatred and violence and promoting respect for others.”

That part of the speech has not been widely reported in the Islamic world.

First, some perspective (even if it is an unfashionable commodity these days).


Appeals in a series of Muslim countries for mass demonstrations against Macron and France at the weekend flopped. They attracted, at most, a few hundred people. 

OPINION: How publishing Mohammed cartoons became a quasi-religious act in France

The Turkish president, Mr Erdogan, is in the middle of a series of disputes with Europe – and especially with Macron – about Libya, unauthorised gas-exploration by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Ankara’s part in encouraging the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

He is struggling in the opinion polls. The Turkish economy is floundering. The Turkish lira is at an all-time low against the dollar.  He has good reason to excite his base by insulting Emmanuel Macron.

The Pakistani Prime Minister has to contain the violent intolerance of radical Islamist forces within his own country. Defending Islam from alleged attack by Macron is politically astute.

Imran Khan’s indignation is selective, however. He, like many Muslim leaders, has little to say about the brutal repression of Islam and Muslim minorities by his giant neighbour to the north and east.

Macron is not entirely without blame. The homage to Mr Paty, which he wrote himself,  was an eloquent exposition of France’s commitment to free expression, tolerance and a secular Republic, where faiths are defended but not promoted or worshipped.

But his words on the cartoons were ill-chosen. “We will not give up caricatures…”


He made it sound as though publishing scurrilous drawing of Mohammed was an important French national custom – not a test of the boundaries of free speech practised by one virulently anti-religious magazine.

It would have been much better if Macron had used words closer to those in an excellent “model” sermon circulated to mosques last Friday by the main French Muslim representative body, the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman.

“The law of the Republic permits these cartoons but obliges no one to like them,” the sermon said. “We can even detest them. But nothing. absolutely nothing, justifies murder.”

In the light of some of the inflammatory language against France in the Muslim world in recent days– and some of the shrill commentary elsewhere – it is worth quoting another section of the sermon.

“No! We Muslims are not persecuted in France. We are citizens just like any other citizens. We have the same guaranteed rights and the same duties to observe.” 

To which one could add. Yes, there is discrimination against Muslims in France. Yes, French Muslims are disproportionately confined to poor housing and ill-paid jobs. 

No, the great majority of France’s 5,000,000 Muslims do not support radical versions of Islam. About half are reckoned to be non-practising.

A growing number wishes to express their faith overtly. Some of them have been converted to rigid, restrictive anti-western and sometimes violent forms of the faith.


There have been 36 serious Islamist terror attacks in France in the last eight years – ranging from the indiscriminate mass slaughter of the Bataclan and related attacks almost five years ago to individual atrocities like the murder of Mr Paty.

Despite these attacks, there has been – despite what the radicals may have hoped -  no widespread, retaliatory violence against muslims and no lurch into the hard-right politics of  intolerance. 

All of this context is strangely absent from some of the present accusations against France – both in the Muslim world and in Britain and the United States. 

The inflammatory comments by Erdogan and others are dangerous. In the context of recent history, they amount, de facto to an incitement to further islamist, radical attacks in France or against French targets abroad.

But Macron and his government also have some share of the blame and some responsibility to try to restore calm.

This – remember  - is all about the murder of a man who  tried to teach 13 and 14 year old tolerance and openness to the ideas and culture of others. Some of the commentary by government ministers in recent days has strayed into the intolerant register of the hard right (forcing Marine Le Pen it seems to shift even further towards outright islamophobia.)

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, even suggested that the secular values of the French Republic – its very existence – was threatened by halal and other ethnic aisles in supermarkets. 

The danger is that the attacks by the Turkish president and others will push the government into other statements or actions which appear to target all Muslims – not just the extremists.

In his tweeted replies last night, in French, Arabic and English, Macron came over as determined – but also rather intransigent. “We will not give in, ever. We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.”

That’s fine but fails to acknowledge that the Mohammed cartoons are “hate speech” to some muslims.

Macron needs – urgently – to make a statement which returns to the spirit of the speech that he gave on Islam, freedom and separatism on October 2nd. This speech has been presented in the Muslim world as an attempt to “conquer” or “constrain” Islam. That is a distortion.

Macron promised a draft law  in early December to combat extremist Islam by banning the “importation” of foreign-financed and trained imams. Financial support will be available to mosques which sign a charter accepting French principles of secularism, democracy and the rule of law.  

Macron recognised, however, that France’s Muslims had been let down by successive governments. He admitted that France had created its own “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with poor housing and few jobs. He promised new actions to improve opportunities for the people of multi-racial inner suburbs or banlieues.

He should make the speech again – not for Erdogan or Imran Khan but for the great majority of French Muslims who wish to practise their religion but also to be part of a successful, tolerant France.


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[email protected] 2020/10/28 07:48
Anyone who interprets Macron's words as describing an important French custom? That's reaching a bit.<br /><br />And only you have invoked the idea of comments being about 'whole populations'. Although perhaps the citizens of any country are in some small way guilty for the acts of their leaders. Who elected them?
[email protected] 2020/10/27 16:00
Very disappointing to see some of the comments here, from people who don't use a real name, are as lacking in thought & analysis as so many on word-count-restricted Twitter.<br />eg. Intellectually Boggy: "showing children porn of someone's prophet". Teachers *use* their materials with sensitivity, context, background, warnings & debate in order to enlighten (education from ex + ducere, lead out) to a broader, balanced view of the world. Sorry you don't know that.<br />eg. Solid: reference to extremes as if the entire "other side" were a homogenous evil. Generalisations get nowhere.<br /><br />As for the title, it's there to attract readers to consider what is written. The idea of "blame" is very interesting when you look at one particular section above, <br />' But (Macron's) words on the cartoons were ill-chosen. “We will not give up caricatures…”. <br />He made it sound as though publishing scurrilous drawing of Mohammed was an important French national custom – not a test of the boundaries of free speech practised by one virulently anti-religious magazine' in contrast to the wording from the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman.<br /><br />Furthermore, Solid, the idea of "blame" is shown not just to be dependent on extremists, it is also part of the political influencing going on with countries' leaders (Turkey & Pakistan) trying to drum up support. That's happening in the US right now & happened with the UK, be it Brexit or the most recent election. You are looking at blame as if it were based on whole populations, this is about elected leaders' reactions to a speech & their exploitation of it for their own limited reasons. Personally I don't think Macron was trying to drum up support from the far right, even if there's been some wording which required more thought, whereas I think it's obvious the other two leaders were, so I think the article is an interesting discussion of a difficult situation. A lot of people in Turkey also wanted to continue with a secular state, don't confuse them with their current leader.
[email protected] 2020/10/27 10:28
Who's to Blame? If that isn't glaringly obvious, you're in the wrong job.<br /><br />One party is talking about standing up to censorship and violence from a religion and defends free speech.<br /><br />And the other from states thathappily tolerate, and even support, mutilation of the genitals of its children and promotes violence against non-believers, and suppresses free speech.<br /><br />Have a guess who the good guys are....
[email protected] 2020/10/26 22:54
Latest wave of state-sponsored Islamophobia a way to overshadow from the terrible economic decisions they've made. Same as with austerity & the burqa law 10 years ago.<br /><br />Yawn... basic stuff. <br /><br />"This – remember - is all about the murder of a man who tried to teach 13 and 14 year old tolerance and openness to the ideas and culture of others." Via showing children porn of someone's Prophet? Ugh... this guy is always not worth reading.
[email protected] 2020/10/26 21:06
In response to Tarquin above....<br />To repeat, I don't like Macron, but to say his social skills are zero is rubbish. He's the only French PM I know who speaks fluent English - at least he's got that as a skill. And besides that, to call him a "backroom boy" is ridiculous for a person who was a minister of economy, industry and digital data for PM Francois Holland.<br />Get your facts straight.
[email protected] 2020/10/26 20:55
I don't particularly care for Macron, but I don't understand why HE should be the one to be careful what he says?<br />A "tolerant France" should start by the French Muslims showing us that they accept our way of life. <br />It angers me to the core that "There have been 36 serious Islamist terror attacks in France in the last eight years", but "Despite these attacks, there has been no widespread, retaliatory violence against muslims and no lurch into the hard-right politics of intolerance".<br />So, pray tell me, how much more tolerant do you want me to be?? <br />
[email protected] 2020/10/26 17:27
Erdogan and Imran don't have the guts to say anything to China, which has put millions of Uyghur muslims in concentration camps and is committing unspeakable atrocities against them. Guess we all know who the bully is now?
[email protected] 2020/10/26 14:49
What one has got to realise is that Macron has no experience of public office or how to communicate with people as he has always been a backroom boy. So his social skills are zero.

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