French President Emmanuel Macron told Al-Jazeera Saturday he understood Muslim anger at cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad but violence was unacceptable and he’d defend his nation’s freedoms. He spoke as France faced terrorist attacks at home and boycott calls in Muslim countries.
Macron’s interview with the Arab broadcaster came days after a Tunisian migrant killed three people at a southern French church. The president told Al-Jazeera he wanted to clear misconceptions about his role and fiercely secular country, where public displays of Islam, such as halal sections in grocery stores, have become a flash point.
“I understand the feelings this stirs, I respect them,” he said of Muslim objections to the cartoons amid widening protests in Muslim countries. “But I want you to understand my role: my role is to calm things down as I’m doing here, and to protect those rights.”
But he stressed that he “would never accept that the cartoons justify violence…I will always defend in my country the freedom to say, to write, to think, to draw.”
“Deciding to boycott a country, a people, because a newspaper said something in our country, is crazy,” Macron said.
Even as the interview was broadcasting, police said a gunman shot and critically wounded a Greek Orthodox priest in the French city of Lyon, the Associated Press reported. The assailant’s motives weren’t immediately clear, but the shooting comes days after the attack on a church in Nice.
Message of Peace
The country has come under attack in recent years by Islamist extremists who have killed dozens of people. In 2015, two members of al-Qaeda gunned down 13 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after it published cartoons ridiculing the Muslim prophet.
The latest furor came after Macron said that Islam was facing a “crisis,” referring to extremists he says have distorted the religion’s teachings. The comment sparked condemnation across the Muslim world and fueled calls for a boycott of French products.
Earlier this month, an assailant beheaded a teacher in Paris who had showed the cartoons of the Muslim prophet in a class discussion about freedom of expression.
Macron’s interview came as France pushed back on criticism that it discriminates against its Muslim minority while it seeks to crack down on Islamist radicals. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian proffered a “message of peace” in a speech on Thursday as leaders and clerics of Muslim countries criticized what they called attacks on the Muslim prophet.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who already has a tense relationship with Macron, backed the call to boycott French products and said the French president needed a mental evaluation.
Macron told Al-Jazeera that most victims of terrorism are Muslim.
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