France issues plea after boycott calls over stance on Prophet Mohammed cartoons

President Emmanuel Macron's refusal to condemn cartoons of the Prophet triggers anger on social media

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France is facing a growing boycott movement in Muslim countries over President Emmanuel Macron's refusal to condemn the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, with Turkey's president stepping up his attacks on the issue by calling on citizens to shun French goods.

Mr Macron last week defended a French schoolteacher who was beheaded by a teenage extremist after showing his students such cartoons, which are considered blasphemous under Islam, during a class on freedom of expression.

"We will not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down," Mr Macron said during a national tribute to the slain teacher.

His stance has led to protests and calls for a boycott of French companies and goods in Muslim countries, and drew a particularly strong reaction from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose comments about Mr Macron's mental state prompted France to recall its ambassador on Friday.

"Just like they say 'Don't buy good with Turkish brands' in France, I am calling to all my citizens from here to never help French brands or buy them," Mr Erdogan said on Monday. He also called on European leaders to stop Mr Macron's "anti-Islam" agenda.

French goods have already been pulled from supermarket shelves in Qatar and Kuwait, while in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s largest economy, a hashtag calling for the boycott of French supermarket retailer Carrefour was the second most trending on Sunday.

In Kuwait, the non-governmental Union of Consumer Co-operative Societies, which groups more than 70 establishments, issued the boycott directive in an October 23 circular. By Sunday, several co-ops visited by Reuters had cleared their shelves of items such as hair and beauty products made by French companies.

Union head Fahd Al Kishti told Reuters the products had been removed in response to “repeated insults” against the Prophet.

A demonstrator holds up a sign reading in Arabic "a nation whose leader is Mohamed will not be defeated" as others stand with signs during a rally protesting against the comments of French President Emmanuel Macron over Prophet Mohammed cartoons, at the Martyrs' Square of Libya's capital Tripoli on October 25, 2020.  / AFP / Mahmud TURKIA
Demonstrators hold up signs during a protest in Tripoli, Libya against French President Emmanuel Macron's comments on Prophet Mohammed cartoons. AFP

The co-ops, some the size of hypermarkets, carry government-subsidised staples and account for a big part of retail in Kuwait. Kuwait’s imports from France stood at 255 million dinars ($835m) last year, according to Kuwait’s Central Statistics bureau.

Kuwait’s foreign minister, who met the French ambassador on Sunday, condemned the teacher's killing on October 16 as a horrendous crime but stressed the need to avoid insulting religion in official and political remarks that “inflame hatred, enmity and racism”, the ministry tweeted.

The French Foreign Ministry said on Sunday evening that its diplomats were mobilising to ask countries where boycotts were being organised or hate calls issued not to back them, and to provide assurances that French citizens would be safe.

How Emmanuel Macron angered the Muslim world

How Emmanuel Macron angered the Muslim world

“In numerous countries of the Middle East, calls to boycott French products...and more generally, calls to demonstrate against France, in sometimes hateful terms, have been relayed on social media,” the ministry said.

“These calls for boycott are baseless and should stop immediately, as well as all attacks against our country, which are being pushed by a radical minority.”

Saudi Arabia's Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom's highest religious body said that insulting prophets only served extremists who wish to spread hatred among societies.

“The duty of wise people all around the world … is to condemn such insults which have nothing to do with freedom of thought and expression and are nothing more than pure prejudice and a free service for extremists,” the council said on Sunday.

On Friday, the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, headquartered in Saudi Arabia, condemned the “ongoing practice of running satirical caricatures depicting the Prophet Mohammed” and said it would “continue to decry justification for blasphemy of any religion in the name of freedom of expression”.

Mr Macron's stance also drew criticism from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who said the French president had “attacked Islam” by encouraging the display of the cartoons.

Pakistan on Monday summoned the French ambassador to condemn what it described as an "Islamophobic campaign under the garb of freedom of expression".

Morocco's foreign ministry also condemned the continued publication of the caricatures, while Jordan's Islamic Affairs Minister Mohammed Al Khalayleh said that "insulting" prophets was "not an issue of personal freedom but a crime that encourages violence".

In a tweet on Sunday, Mr Macron said France respected all differences in a spirit of peace, but did not accept hate speech and defended reasonable debate. “We will not give in, ever,” he said.