France’s policies against “extremism” facing fierce criticism around the world have been misrepresented and are not Islamophobic, its foreign minister said on Thursday.
Paris has faced a backlash for draft legislation presented to clamp down on “radicalism” that tightens rules on religious-based education and polygamy following a spate of attacks.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said following the attacks, “our positions and statements [on combatting extremism] were largely distorted and misrepresented as part of a campaign against our country”.
“[Our position] might have been misunderstood by believers who might have felt their beliefs were being disrespected,” Le Drian, in Qatar for a one-day official visit, said at a media briefing.
“We have the utmost respect for Islam.”
Tensions flared between France and Muslim countries over remarks by President Emmanuel Macron in October defending cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, forbidden by Islam, and describing the religion as “in crisis”.
While Qatar did not directly criticise France, some prominent Qatari retailers have instituted boycotts of French products in response to the comments.
Qatar’s foreign minister, who spoke alongside Le Drian, said “violent extremism is not connected or linked with any religion”.
“We must stand firmly against Islamophobic speech just as the world stands against all forms of racist rhetoric,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.
Muslims worldwide have protested Macron’s strident defence of secular values and the right to mock religion after a French schoolteacher who showed his class the cartoons was beheaded in October.
Ally of Turkey
The French government on Wednesday defended the draft legislation as a “law of freedom” after a torrent of criticism from Muslim countries and expressions of concern from the United States.
“This bill is not a text aimed against religions or against the Muslim religion in particular,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters after the cabinet approved text to present to parliament.
Analysts say the long-term impact of the controversy would depend on France’s next steps.
Dozens of prominent French brands are active in Qatar, including construction companies, retailers and luxury labels such as Louis Vuitton, beloved in the wealthy petrol-rich nation.
French showpieces in Qatar include the Jean Nouvel-designed National Museum of Qatar in Doha, the signalling system on the new metro railway, and an outpost of the Galeries Lafayette department store.
Qatar is also an important buyer of French military hardware with its order for 36 Rafale fighter jets worth 8.7 billion euros ($10.5bn), according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance survey.
Le Drian also said he discussed Libya with Sheikh Al Thani and, in a statement issued after their meeting, he called for “an end to foreign interference in Libya, support for the implementation of a ceasefire, and UN [United Nations] efforts to hold credible elections”.
France has clashed repeatedly with Qatar’s staunch ally Turkey over strategy in Libya, with the two camps supporting opposing sides in the conflict.