France was stung into launching a charm offensive to quell anti-French sentiment in some Muslim countries after receiving tens of thousands of messages of indignation from moderate believers on a government website, say reports.
The French foreign ministry was said to be taken aback by the scale of accusations of “colonial arrogance” on its Arabic Facebook page from around 50,000 people from various countries. Usually, the site receives a few dozen likes or comments.
According to Le Monde, the Quai d’Orsay, as the ministry is is known, was struck by the fact that many of the messages were not from “Islamist circles or the ‘radical minority’ mentioned in the statement”.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who had already angered Muslims earlier in October by saying “Islam is in crisis worldwide,” stirred further backlash after the murder of a teacher outside Paris last month who had shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during class by saying France “will not give up our cartoons”.
The remarks led to calls for a boycott of French goods notably by Turkey and mass protests in various countries, including Bangladesh.
In response, the French foreign ministry said that such “attacks on our country pushed by a radical minority are baseless and must be stopped immediately”.
“I’m against a boycott of French goods but after such a declaration, everyone will boycott you,” wrote Abdelhadi Alijla, a Palestinian-Swedish political scientist.
“This rhetoric full or superiority has only made things worse,” said Ibrahim Fraihat, professor of international relations at the Doha Institute. “Macron had the vast majority of the Arab world behind him after the murder of Samuel Paty (the slain teacher). And in a few disastrous declarations, he managed to lose it.”
Since then, the foreign minister issued a placatory message saying France had only “a message of peace for the Muslim world”.
This week Mr Macron spoke with the Egyptian and Palestinian leaders and in a long interview on Saturday with Al Jazeera, he said: “I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures but I will never accept that violence can be justified.”, Mr Macron said: “I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures but I will never accept that violence can be justified.”
The interview elicited little response with one of the few Muslim politicians to support the French president being the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, an ally of the French and opponent of Turkey in Libya.
He told Die Welt: “The words of the French president were deliberately taken out of context.
“He doesn’t want to ghettoise Muslims in the West, and he is totally right.”
He accused Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of using controversy to mount a political recovery. “Erdoğan wants to become the leader of Sunni Islam. That’s why he stages it that way. But in truth this is a political project, not a theological one,” he said.
With anti-French sentiment still high, Mr Macron is said to be now considering appointing a special envoy to explain his thinking on secularism and freedom of expression.
Following the terror attack in Vienna, Austria this week, Elysée aides say the debate has moved on and the Islamist threat is not just trained on France but Europe and the West in general.
“Lots of leaders have understood that the issue was not caricatures or secularism but our common democratic practices,” the aide told Le Figaro. “This has laid to rest the refrain that we insulted Muslims.”