French firms urged to ‘resist blackmail’ as Turkey's Erdogan joins calls for boycott
Economists have downplayed the threat to French exports as calls to boycott French goods spread across the Muslim world in a backlash over the hardened stance France has taken against radical Islamists in the wake of the brutal murder of a teacher.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first head of state on Monday to join calls for a boycott that has seen French goods being pulled from supermarket shelves in Qatar and Kuwait, among other Gulf states.
"Never give credit to French-labelled goods, don't buy them," Erdogan said in a televised speech in Ankara, further ratcheting up his criticism of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The backlash stems from comments made by Macron after the October 16 beheading of a history teacher who had shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in a class discussion on free speech. Depictions of the Prophet Muhammed are forbidden in Islam and are offensive to many Muslims.
In the wake of Samuel Paty's gruesome murder the French president vowed to take the fight to Islamists, saying that France would not "give up” the right to caricature. He vowed that France would never give up the right to lampoon political and religious figures.
He doubled down on his defence of French secularism in the wake of the teacher’s beheading, and his government has vowed to crack down on mosques and Muslim organisations suspected of spreading hate speech.
>> Anger at beheading of French teacher ‘must not override rule of law’
Macron's comments triggered protests in several Muslim-majority countries at the weekend, with people burning pictures of Macron in Syria and setting fire to French flags in the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Seeking to calm the current backlash against France, the French Council of the Muslim Faith said on Monday that Muslims are “not persecuted” in France and “freely practise their religion”. But some in Western Europe's largest Muslim community warn that Macron’s words risk further alienating a segment of the population that already feels discriminated against.
‘Principles above business’
The head of France's MEDEF employers' federation on Monday said the boycott, which he described as "foolishness", was clearly bad news for companies already hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
"But there is no question of giving in to blackmail," Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux told broadcaster RMC. "It is a question of sticking to our republican values (...). There is a time to put principles above business."
He said MEDEF supported the government's stance and urged companies "to resist this blackmail and, unfortunately, to endure this boycott", which he said remained "fairly localised" for now.
The French foreign ministry has urged Middle Eastern countries to prevent the boycotts, saying the "baseless" calls are being "pushed by a radical minority".
French Trade Minister Franck Riester told reporters on Monday that the government was not planning a reciprocal boycott against Turkish products.
The boycotts are likely to have only a marginal impact on French exports, said French economist Stéphanie Villers, noting that tariffs on French wine introduced by the US last year were far more crippling.
“If there was a real intent to hurt France’s economy, then all French products would be boycotted,” Villers told RTL radio, citing the more lucrative aviation and luxury sectors, which have not been affected.
Arms exports account for the lion's share of French trade with countries like Qatar and Kuwait, said Frédéric Encel, a professor of geopolitics at the Paris Business School. Such contracts "take years to negotiate", he told French daily Le Parisien. "No mosque or NGO can halt the sale of French bombers or Rafale fighters jets."
Describing the boycott as a “micro-phenomenon”, Encel said Middle Eastern countries would also be reluctant to provoke retaliatory action by France’s European partners.
“For economic reasons, governments will ensure the protest action remains marginal,” Encel told Le Parisien. He added: “For most Muslim countries, the European Union is a more important trade partner than China, the United States or India. They cannot risk incurring sanctions from their principal trading partner.”
As the backlash against France widens, European leaders have rallied behind the French president and slammed Erdogan’s attacks on Macron.
"They are defamatory comments that are completely unacceptable, particularly against the backdrop of the horrific murder of the French teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist fanatic," German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters on Monday.
The prime ministers of Italy, the Netherlands and Greece also expressed support for France, as did European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
"President Erdogan's words addressing President @EmmanuelMacron are unacceptable," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted, adding that the Netherlands stood "for the freedom of speech and against extremism and radicalism."
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tweeted: "Personal insults don't help the positive agenda the EU wants to have with Turkey but pushes solutions further away."
'Hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims'
Erdogan is not the only head of state to have admonished France and its president for allegedly offending Muslims.
In a series of tweets posted on Sunday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan accused Macron of "attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it".
Khan added: "President Macron has attacked and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe & across the world.”
Earlier this month, before Paty’s murder in a Paris suburb, Macron unveiled a plan to fight was he called “Islamist separatism” in France. He stressed that he was referring to “radical Islamism” and not Muslims in general, though he also argued that Islam was “in crisis everywhere in the world”.