The growing rift between Muslim nations and France over President Emmanuel Macron’s offensive attack on Islam last month, which was followed by an attack on Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), has led to him appearing on Al Jazeera to tell the Muslim world that he was misunderstood. From where I sit, it seems that Macron himself misunderstood Islam and Muslims and what the Prophet means to them.
Of course it is neither obligatory nor even possible for everyone to understand everything about the world. However, a world leader such as the President of France, a country with six million Muslim citizens, could be expected to be briefed by his officials much more comprehensively than usual in such matters. He must surely have known, or been told, that there would be serious consequences in attacking Islam as he did. Moreover, his advisers should have told him that there are some protocols that an elected president should not breach, and that abusing people of a different race, gender, culture or religion is one of them.
“Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world,” said Macron. He wants to “reform Islam”. With more than a billion Muslims in the world today, why was he surprised at the reaction to his words? This was the president of a former colonial country with millions of Muslim citizens making these statements, not any old “Pierre, Paul ou Jacques”. It was inevitable that there would be a reaction. French Muslims were his direct target and were duly offended, and it is they who will have to live with the particularly nasty, racist consequences of the violence which ensued after Macron’s statements.
Ignoring all of the anger, Macron made the arrogant claim that France is the birthplace of freedom and criticised anyone who dared speak out against freedom of speech. The irony was lost on him. He just didn’t get it. Even after school teacher Samuel Paty was killed by a young Muslim offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that he showed to his students, Macron insisted on having the same images projected on government buildings across France and defended them: “We will not renounce the caricatures,” he insisted, adding fuel to the fire.
This suggested that Macron knew very well what he was doing. The fact that his Interior Minister said that raids on Muslim homes and institutions totally unconnected to the murderous attacks were intended to “send a message” to French Muslims confirms this. For him to claim on Al Jazeera that he was misunderstood was disingenuous. He knew, all right, but he didn’t care. Such was the arrogance of the French president.
This is neither the time nor the place for a philosophical discussion about freedom of speech. What I want to do is highlight the hypocrisy of the French in their application of this democratic principle. In this case, Macron and his government have simply followed their predecessors and used it to attack Islam and Muslims, because freedom of speech is not sacrosanct, and never has been.
In 2009, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was sacked for caricatures he drew which were deemed to be anti-Semitic. He was taken to court for “inciting racial hatred”. The target of those cartoons was the son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Selective “freedom of speech”, obviously.
Moreover, in 2012, the French magazine Closer published a series of photographs of Britain’s Duchess of Cambridge while she sunbathed topless with her husband Prince William in France. The British couple sued the magazine and its editor in the French courts, claiming that publication of the pictures violated their right to privacy. The courts eventually ruled in favour of the British Royals. Two people objected to photographs, and won their case, and yet the concerns of millions of Muslims in France — never mind the billion or so elsewhere — were pushed aside in favour of “freedom of speech”.
In August last year, Macron complained about something said about his wife by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Facebook. “He has made some extraordinarily rude comments about my wife,” Macron said at a press conference. “What can I say? It’s sad. It’s sad for him firstly, and for Brazilians.” He called on the people of Brazil to look for another president. This year, though, the French leader feels free to say whatever he wants about Islam and Muslims and support offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), failing to understand the hurt that Muslims are experiencing, and all in the name of “freedom of speech”.
Indeed, while Macron was defending the publication of the cartoons under the pretext of freedom of speech last week, the French Embassy in Mauritania terminated its contract with local cartoonist Khaled Ould Moulay Idriss who caricatured Macron with a snake’s body. He was fired for offending a French public figure.
This double standard is what Macron apparently isn’t bothered about. French “freedom of speech” is entirely arbitrary, not an untouchable principle underpinning the French Republic which is claimed whenever Muslims are the offended parties.
The President of France wasn’t misunderstood. What he said and has done was deliberate, “to send a message” to his country’s Muslim citizens. It is only with the possibility of a major economic hit coming France’s way if a boycott of French goods takes hold that he felt the need to appear on Al Jazeera to explain himself. Macron’s arrogance still dominated his thought processes, though. “Deciding to boycott a country, a people, because a newspaper said something in our country, is crazy,” he claimed.
He thus gave the game away. He is engaged in a populist campaign to discredit a sizeable and very distinct section of the French population in order to boost his chances at the next election. Freedom of speech is an excuse to insult Islam and Muslims, not a reason.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.