President Emmanuel Macron called a New York Times writer to criticise English-language coverage of France’s stance on what it calls “Islamist separatism” after recent attacks, arguing it amounts to “legitimising” violence.
“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” Macron told Ben Smith during the call, which Smith described in his Sunday column.
“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values … when I see them legitimising this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”
In his column about their exchange, Smith said the French president argued “foreign media failed to understand ‘laïcité'”, or secularism, a pillar of French policy and society.
Domestic support for a firm line on requiring immigrants to embrace “French” values is stronger than ever since satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September.
The Prophet is deeply revered by Muslims, and any kind of visual depiction of him is forbidden in Islam. The caricatures in question are seen by Muslims as offensive and Islamophobic because they are perceived to link Islam with “terrorism”.
The republication of the cartoons marked the opening of the trial of people accused of aiding two men who launched a deadly attack against Charlie Hebdo in 2015, citing the fact that the magazine had run these same cartoons as a reason for the assault.
In the wake of the republication, a man wounded two people with a meat cleaver on September 25 outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices.
Teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his class the cartoons, was beheaded outside his school on October 16. And, on October 29, a man recently arrived from Tunisia killed three people with a knife in a Nice church.
The attacks have prompted tougher rhetoric from Macron against what he calls “Islamist separatism”.
While paying tribute to Paty, Macron defended France’s strict brand of secularism and its long tradition of satire. “We will not give up cartoons,” he vowed.
He reiterated his point in an interview with Le Grand Continent in which he stated that, despite his respect for different cultures, “I am not going to change our laws because they shock elsewhere.”
“The fight of our generation in Europe will be a combat for our freedoms,” Macron said, adding he believed they were being “overturned”.
Boycotting French goods
Meanwhile, thousands across the Muslim world have protested against Macron and his government, angered by the French leader’s comments that Islam is a religion “in crisis” globally, and by the renewed French official support for the right to show the caricatures.
Some Muslim countries have called for boycotts of French products – but also by English-language newspapers and even international political allies.
The Financial Times published a piece by a correspondent titled: Macron’s war on “Islamic separatism” only divides France further.
The paper later took down the column, citing factual errors.
Defending France’s stance in a letter to the FT in which he denied stigmatising Muslims, Macron wrote: “France – we are attacked for this – is as secular for Muslims as for Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all believers.”