ANKARA: Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves as arrives to address his party’s group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly yesterday. – AFP

PARIS: France has urged its citizens to be cautious and avoid mass gatherings in countries that have announced boycotts of French products in a fast-spreading protest against perceived anti-Muslim bias from Paris. Muslims have reacted angrily to President Emmanuel Macron’s staunch defence of the right to mock religion following the beheading of a history teacher who had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed during a class discussion on free speech.

Tens of thousands marched Tuesday in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, while in Syria protesters have burnt pictures of Macron and in Libya they torched French flags. “In several countries in recent days, there have been calls for a boycott of French products, particularly foodstuff, and more generally calls to protest against France,” the French foreign ministry said on its website.

“It is advisable to avoid areas where demonstrations are held, to stay away from gatherings, and to follow the guidance of the relevant French embassy or consulate,” it added. “It is recommended to be most vigilant, especially when travelling, and in places frequented by tourists and expatriate communities.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led the charge against Macron, backing calls in the Islamic world to boycott French goods.

Depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are considered offensive by many Muslims, but in France such cartoons have become synonymous with freedom of expression and a proud secular tradition dating back to the Revolution. In the aftermath of teacher Samuel Paty’s murder, Macron vowed the country “will not give up cartoons”. Publication of the same drawings had sparked the 2015 massacre of cartoonists and others at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the beginning of a spate of deadly terror attacks on French soil. Earlier this month, Macron had unveiled a plan to defend France’s secular values against a trend of “Islamist separatism”, and described Islam as a religion “in crisis”.

Erdogan seeks influence
Erdogan may present himself as the advocate of Muslims but his jibes at French leader Emmanuel Macron on Islam also aim to score points at the expense of Middle Eastern rivals, analysts say. In the space of a few days, Erdogan has called for a boycott of French-labeled goods and questioned the “mental health” of Macron over his hardened stance against radical Islam and defense of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

The French leader’s robust defence of the right to mock religion followed the beheading of a French schoolteacher who had shown his pupils cartoons of the prophet. Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the US German Marshall Fund think tank, says Erdogan, a pious Muslim, is “sincere” in his reaction. “But he also benefits from this spat with Macron on both the domestic and international fronts,” he said. “Being in a conflict with Western leaders boosts Erdogan’s image as a national leader who defies Western hubris against Turks or other Muslims,” Unluhisarcikli said.

This posture also allows him to “increase the grievances of Muslim societies towards their ruling elite in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which cannot match Erdogan’s vigor in ‘defending Islam’.” The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE-his regional rivals-have largely shied away from commenting on a subject which strikes a furious chord in the Arab-Muslim world.

These three countries indeed share Paris’s tough line against Islamist movements which they accuse Erdogan of supporting, and which they consider a threat to their stability. Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla summed up in a tweet the contrast between the position of these three countries and that of the Turkish leader. “The equation is very simple and clear. If Erdogan attacks Macron, that means that Macron is right,” he wrote.

‘Does not bow his head’
Didier Billion, a Turkey specialist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, believes Erdogan seeks to take advantage of “the strategic vacuum in the Middle East” caused by the declining influence of traditional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He wants to play a more robust role in the region. “He wants to appear as the one who does not bow his head in front of the West,” he said.

According to him, “Erdogan notes, and he is not wrong, that Islamophobia is deepening in France” and in this context, his invectives against Macron are “a desire to influence the Muslims of France”. But he adds “this effort will be in vain” because Muslims in France have their own structures based on their countries of origins like Algeria or Morocco, “even if Erdogan exerts a fascination with some of the young Muslims.” Jean Marcou, a professor at Sciences Po Grenoble, pointed to the geopolitical dimension of tensions between Turkey and France.

“Since last summer, we have witnessed a series of confrontations between the two countries in strategic theatres of conflict: Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon, Mali and Nagorno-Karabakh”, he said. “These clashes are the result of an offensive policy by Turkey which intends to impose itself as a regional power. “If Turkey finds Paris in its path, it is undoubtedly because, in the context of Brexit, France is the only country in the EU to have nuclear power and a seat at the UN Security Council,” he added. “So France too is in a position to demand a place and a role to play on the borders of Europe (in the Middle East, in the Mediterranean or in Africa) where Turkey is located.”

‘Win-win’ for both leaders
Billion compared the verbal confrontation between the Turkish and French leaders to a “cockfight”, while also pointing to Macron’s outbursts at Erdogan. “Macron seeks to show that he does not stand idly by in the face of political Islam,” he said. “In this context, it is a boon for Macron to have a leader like Erdogan on the opposite side”. Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund agreed.

“Macron also seems to enjoy this spat. Perhaps he also has a similar strategy of boosting his image as the leader who protects ‘Western values’ against others,” he said. “This seems to be a win-win situation for the two leaders and lose-lose for their countries.” – Agencies