Turkish leader Erdogan backs boycott of French goods over cartoon row

Erdogan, who has a history of fraught relations with Macron, said France was pursuing an anti-Islam agenda.
Erdogan, who has a history of fraught relations with Macron, said France was pursuing an anti-Islam agenda.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS/ANKARA (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked his compatriots to stop buying French goods on Monday (Oct 26) in the latest expression of anger in the Muslim world over images being displayed in France of the Prophet Mohammad, which some Muslims consider blasphemous.

France is not planning a reciprocal boycott against Turkish products and will continue talks and relations with Turkey and its president, Trade Minister Franck Riester said on Monday.

"There is no retaliation on the agenda," Riester told RTL radio.

He nevertheless reiterated the government's condemnation of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's recent comments about President Emmanuel Macron and his treatment of Muslims in France.

In Bangladesh on Monday, protesters unfurled placards with a caricature of French President Emmanuel Macron and the words :"Macron is the enemy of peace", while Pakistan summoned France's ambassador in Islamabad to issue a protest.

Erdogan, who has a history of fraught relations with Macron, said France was pursuing an anti-Islam agenda.

"I am calling to all my citizens from here to never help French brands or buy them," Erdogan said.

In Turkey, French autos are among the highest selling cars, and French-Turkish bilateral trade overall was worth nearly US$15 billion (S$20.42 billion) last year.

The Turkish president has made similar boycott calls in the past, including an appeal not to buy US electronic goods in 2018 that was not followed through.

Erdogan on Monday joined a chorus of voices elsewhere calling for a boycott.

In Kuwait city, a supermarket had stripped its shelves of L'Oreal cosmetics and skincare products after the cooperative union to which it belongs decided to stop stocking French goods.

In Saudi Arabia, calls for a boycott of French supermarket chain Carrefour were trending on social media, though two stores Reuters visited in the Saudi capital on Monday seemed as busy as normal. A company representative in France said it had yet to feel any impact.

While the immediate commercial impact of the boycott calls was difficult to assess, French businesses operate in majority-Muslim markets around the world.

Turkey was France’s 16th largest trade partner last year. Singapore and Morocco are the only other majority Muslim countries among France’s top 20 trade partners.

Asked about the calls, Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, the head of the main French employers' federation, said on RMC radio station: "Of course it's bad news for the firms that have a presence there."

While others joined in the condemnation, the immediate economic impact fell on Turkey rather than France, with the lira and stocks dropping as investors gauged Erdogan’s comments as a sign of renewed tensions between Ankara and the west more broadly.

TEACHER BEHEADED

Earlier, Erdogan had questioned the state of Macron's mental health, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador in Ankara.

"What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level," Erdogan said in a speech on Saturday.

In Malaysia, Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim said in a statement: "French President Emmanuel Macron's statement that Islam is facing a crisis around the world is offensive as it is unreasonable. It promotes the very impasse it seeks to denounce."

Datuk Seri Anwar denounced extremists. "There is no defence for the violence and murders of the men of blood, the misguided homicidal monsters who pervert Islam... I mourn for Mr Samuel Paty as for all the victims of such depredations."

Mr Anwar added: "To expand reasoned diagnosis of a radical fringe in order to then implicate the whole not only of Muslim communities everywhere but the character of Islam itself is gross ignorance."

The row has its roots in a knife attack outside a French school on Oct 16 in which an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin beheaded Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old teacher who had shown pupils cartoons of Mohammad in a civics lesson on freedom of speech.

The cartoons first appeared many years ago in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose Paris editorial office was attacked in 2015 by gunmen who killed 12 people.

The incident then sparked protests  in Muslim countries around the globe and a boycott of Danish goods. Exports to Denmark’s main market in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, fell by 40 per cent, while those to Iran, then its third largest market, fell by 47 per cent.

“These boycotts can ripple across the region to a certain degree but there is a real difference between the boycott of Denmark years ago and France,” said David B. Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London who studies the Gulf.

He said: “You can get rid of few bottles of Chardonnay in the UAE and Qatar, but do these countries want to jeopardize strategic alliances with France, an important regional ally?”

Since the beheading, the caricatures have been projected onto the facade of a building in one city and people displayed them at protests around the country.

Macron said he would redouble efforts to stop conservative Islamic beliefs subverting French values.

Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, the Council of Senior Scholars, said in a statement carried on state media late on Sunday that insulting prophets had nothing to do with freedom of expression and only "served extremists who aim to spread hatred".

On Tuesday, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported that the country “calls for freedom of thought and culture to be a beacon that radiates respect, tolerance and peace”. 

It cited an unidentified official and said the country “rejects all practices and actions that generate hatred, violence and extremism and violate the values of coexistence and mutual respect among the peoples of the world”.

Qatar's government also issued a statement on Monday condemning what it described as populist rhetoric inciting the abuse of religions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that insulting Muslims is an "opportunistic abuse of freedom of speech. It only fuels extremism."

EUROPEAN ALLIES

Several of France's partners in the European Union rallied round the French leader on Monday.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in a Twitter post, said Erdogan's remarks directed at Macron were unacceptable.

"Full solidarity with the President @EmmanuelMacron," Conte wrote. "Personal invective does not help the positive agenda that the EU wants to pursue with Turkey."

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described Erdogan's personal attacks on Macron as a new low.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country stands with France for the freedom of speech and against extremism.

France itself has stood firm.

In a tweet on Sunday, Macron said France respected all differences in a spirit of peace but he also said: "We will not give in, ever."

The French foreign ministry said in a statement at the weekend that the criticism of France was driven by a radical minority and urged foreign governments to dissociate themselves from boycott calls.

“Both sides are using it for domestic reasons,” said Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics.

“President Macron is using this tragedy to impress his critics and show that he is as muscular as they are,” he said adding that President Erdogan “is doing the same thing: Erdogan has mastered the art of using the sacred as a mobilization tool not just in Turkey but in the wider Islamic world."

Ultimately, said Gerges of the LSE, while the narrative will resonate among certain sections of society, the wider public in France and the Muslim world have bigger issues to worry about right now.

“It’s surviving the pandemic, poverty and economic hardship – and the overwhelming majority are more concerned with that,” he said.