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.

By Duncan Bartlett for Geopolitical Monitor

The Pakistani government has agreed it will completely boycott French goods and, according to Al Jazeera, ministers will soon ask parliament to expel the French ambassador.

These exceptional moves follow demonstrations near the embassy in Islamabad by a religious group called Tehreek-e-Labbaik, whose supporters have burned the French flag and trampled upon images of President Emmanuel Macron.

Even if the ambassador is not expelled, the French may choose to quit Islamabad because of the security risks. This would, in effect, sever diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Global protests

Anti-French protests have also been taking place in other Muslim-majority nations, including Bangladesh, Qatar, Kuwait, and Somalia.

In Iran, President Macron has been pictured as the devil on the front page of national newspapers and the government summoned the French ambassador to protest at what it regards as President Macron’s “anti-Islam stance.”

Macron’s harshest critic is the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is the key provocateur, encouraging other Muslim nations to boycott French products.

President Erdogan said in a speech this month: “What problem does this person called Macron have with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level.”

The rhetoric was typical of Mr Erdoğan’s emotional and populist tone. Furthermore, Turkey’s relationship with France is affected by tension over oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

Free speech

The French president has vigorously defended freedom of expression since a recent wave of terror attacks in France, which began with the decapitation of the teacher Samuel Paty, who showed cartoons of the prophet Mohammad to his students at a school near Paris.

Mr Macron said during an interview with Al Jazeera: “I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights.”

He added: “I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw.”

The satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo has republished the offending image of the prophet, alongside unflattering caricatures of president Erdoğan. In response, President Macron has said the media is independent of the government.

In September, a young man of Pakistani origin wounded two people in an attack with a meat cleaver outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said it was “clearly an act of Islamist terrorism.”

Clash of cultures

Such incidents have increased the fear in France, which has the largest Muslim minority population in Europe. As the authorities move to clamp down on extremism, some Muslims claim their communities are experiencing discrimination and say their brief system is under attack. These allegations have spread to other parts of the world, stoking resentment against France in regions where there was existing distrust.

In Pakistan, the negative view of France has been amplified by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Last month, he wrote on Twitter: “Sadly, President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens, and encouraged the display of blasphemous cartoons, targeting Islam and the Holy Prophet.”

Pakistan’s problems

Khan’s critics say that this criticism of France could be an attempt to whip up popular anger and detract from his country’s domestic issues.

Pakistan faces myriad challenges, resulting from its slow economic development and political instability linked to extensive military interference in the affairs of its civilian government. Young people in Pakistan have limited opportunities for higher education or skilled employment and in some cases their frustration has been exploited by extremists.

What is largely overlooked in the Pakistani media at the current time is the fact that France is one of the country’s most generous supporters in terms of humanitarian and development aid.

The French government promised to raise its financial assistance to Pakistan to half-a-billion euros a year, making a particular effort to help the water and hydropower sector.

In 2019, the French investment was warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Khan and other senior ministers.

The tension between President Macron and the Muslim world has political implications in France. The president leads a centrist party, En Marche, whose biggest challenge comes from right-wing nationalists. Some of them claim that France and the EU have been too generous in its subsidies to Turkey and Pakistan and are calling for sanctions against those countries.

The decision to take an assertive stance in favor of freedom of speech may have been a calculated one on the part of President Macron on the basis of drawing voters from his right-wing opponents. But the ensuing scandal has done serious harm to certain bilateral relationships, Pakistan chief among them. The issue could ‘blow over’ as populist rage calms in the Muslim world; however, such themes are sure to emerge once again in the lead-up to France’s next presidential elections in spring of 2022.

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