Macron and Islam: What has the French president actually said to outrage the Muslim world?

This article originally published on October 27 has been updated to take account of new developments.

The French president has become a particular target for anger in parts of the Muslim world, amid a renewed row over the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.

Emmanuel Macron has repeated his vow to defend freedom of expression in France, following the barbaric murder of a teacher who had discussed with his class the cartoons published by a French paper.

In an interview with Al Jazeera (in French) he said he understood and respected the feelings of Muslims who are offended by the drawings, but that could never justify physical violence.

Blaming “lies and distortions of my words” for the reaction, he pointed out that the caricatures were “not a government project” but came from “free and independent newspapers”.

Macron denied attacking Islam, saying France has “no problem” with the religion which is practised by millions of people in France who “want to live in peace”.

His targets, he said, were terrorism and those who promote “radical Islam”. “These are violent extremists who distort the religion and commit violence within Islam,” he added, claiming that Muslims accounted for 80% of the victims of Islamist terrorism in the world over the past 40 years.

Macron’s comments came at the end of a week in which three people were stabbed to death in a Catholic church in Nice by a Tunisian man, and a security guard at a French consulate in Saudi Arabia was wounded by a man with a knife.

Before these events, he had sparked controversy over his defence of freedom of expression and attack on “radical Islam” and “Islamist separatism” in the wake of Samuel Paty’s beheading.

The French president’s remarks drew fire from Turkey’s President Erdogan — who slammed “rising Islamophobia in the West” and called for a boycott of French products — as well as protests across the Muslim world from Pakistan to Syria, Bangladesh to Gaza.

In a column for Euronews, Pakistan minister Syed Zulfi Bukhari — also an adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan — argues the caricatures are not satire but similar to the “dehumanisation… used by anti-Semites for centuries”. He calls on Macron to lead France “in providing Muslims with the same safeguards it extends to other communities”.

Need for an ‘Islam of Enlightenment’

Tensions had already been increasing following a speech Macron gave in early October. Before an audience in a town northwest of Paris — some 20 kilometres from where the teacher was later murdered after discussing cartoons with his class — the president set out a plan to combat “separatism”, focusing on Islam in particular.

“Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world,” he said in his speech (in French), citing tensions between fundamentalism, proper religious projects and politicians.

There was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”, the president went on, outlining plans to end a system allowing imams to train overseas, reduce homeschooling, and take control of religious funding. Associations would have to sign a contract respecting “the Republic’s values” in order to obtain subsidies.

The measures, accompanied by improvements to educational, cultural and sports services, are to form part of a draft law on “secularity and liberty”, expected in December.

There was a need to build an “Islam des Lumières” (Islam of Enlightenment), the president said.

Wrong to ‘stigmatise all Muslims’, Macron says

Macron began his speech by reasserting that the French principle of secularity guaranteed the freedom to worship, rejecting the “trap” laid by extremists which would seek to “stigmatise all Muslims”.

But the president singled out the ideology of “Islamist separatism” which sought to “create a parallel order” to the French Republic, asserting its own laws as superior. People should face up to a phenomenon that was enticing significant numbers of young people, he said.

“Our challenge is to struggle against the downward slide of some in the name of religion, by ensuring that those who want to believe in Islam and are full citizens of our Republic are not targeted.”

Macron also acknowledged that France had failed its immigrant communities, creating “our own separatism” with ghettos of “misery and hardship” where people were lumped together according to their origins and social background.

“We have thus created districts where the promise of the Republic has no longer been kept, and therefore districts where the attraction of these messages, where these most radical forms were sources of hope,” he added.

Teacher’s beheading puts focus on security

The speech, delivered a week after a stabbing in Paris outside the former headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was well received by moderate Muslim leaders. It built on an earlier address the president gave in February in which he also vowed to fight “separatism”.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) — the main intermediary between the religion and the government — has since promised its own plan to fight radicalisation, to include a training programme for imams.

After Samuel Paty’s brutal killing, Emmanuel Macron defended freedom of expression: “We will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away”, he said, calling for an end to hatred and violence and for respect for others.

The teacher had discussed the subject with his class after the magazine Charlie Hebdo republished drawings of Prophet Muhammad to coincide with a trial linked to the deadly attack on its journalists in 2015.

The days following the teacher’s murder saw an emphasis on security and the fight against radicalisation, as the French state took action against those suspected of links to extremism.

“Our citizens are waiting for us to act,” Macron said. “Dozens of operations have been launched against associations, and also individuals who support a plan of radical Islamism, in other words an ideology to destroy the (French) Republic.”

The question over Islam’s role in France is likely to feature strongly in the 2022 French presidential election campaign, where the political right and especially the far right are expected to highlight the issue.

Macron’s speech in early October was criticised by left-wing politicians who accused him of stigmatising Muslims, and by some on the right for failing to tackle immigration.

All this comes in the context of numerous Islamist terror attacks the country has suffered in recent years. Some three dozen have been reported since eight people were killed in a series of attacks in southwest France in 2012, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

In 2015, a spate of attacks in January including the assault on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters left 17 dead. Later that year 130 people were killed in attacks on Paris nightspots including the Bataclan music venue. The following year 86 died when a truck was driven into crowds in Nice.