President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday sought to calm flaring tensions with Muslims around the world, telling an Arab TV Channel, “he understood that caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) could be shocking while lashing out at “lies” that the French state was behind them.
France is on edge after the republication in early September of cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) by the Charlie Hebdo weekly, which was followed by an attack outside its former offices, the beheading of a teacher and an attack on Thursday on a church in Nice that left three dead.
In a new incident, an attacker armed with a sawn-off shotgun on Saturday wounded an Orthodox priest in a shooting in the French city of Lyon before fleeing, said a police source.
The priest attacked in Lyon, who has Greek nationality, was closing his church when the attack happened and is now in a serious condition, said the source, who asked not to be named.
Macron sparked protests in the Muslim world after the murder earlier this month of teacher Samuel Paty by saying France would never renounce its laws permitting blasphemous caricatures.
But in an apparent bid to reach out to Muslims, Macron gave a long interview setting out his vision to Qatar-based TV channel Al Jazeera, seeking to strike a softer tone.
“I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures, but I will never accept that violence can be justified,” he said.
“I understand the feelings that this arouses, I respect them. But I want you to understand the role that I have. My role is to calm things down, as I am doing here, but at the same time it is to protect these rights.” He added: “I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw.”
Macron lashed out at “distortions” from political leaders over cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH), saying too often people were led to believe that they were a creation of the French state.
He slammed “a confusion that has been fed by many media — and sometimes political and religious leaders — which is to say that these caricatures are in a way the project or the creation of the French government or the president”.
He also denounced calls for a boycott of French goods, backed in particular by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and taken up by some retailers in Muslim countries, as “unworthy” and “unacceptable”.
He said the campaign was created by some private groups “who relied on lies… sometimes from other leaders” about the caricatures.
Even before the attack on Paty, Macron had promised a tough new campaign against Islamist radicalism in France, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of people since 2015.
French authorities were on Saturday seeking to ascertain if a young Tunisian suspected of killing three people in a knife rampage inside a Nice church had outside help.
Brahim Issaoui, 21, only arrived in Europe from Tunisia last month and, according to prosecutors, killed a church employee, a Brazilian woman and a French woman in the attack in the Notre-Dame Basilica on Thursday morning. Essaouira was shot by police multiple times and is currently in grave condition in the hospital. Investigators have been unable to question him and his precise motivations remain unclear.
“It is still too early to say if there were others complicit, what his motivations were in coming to France and when this idea took root in him,” said a source close to the inquiry who asked not to be named.