PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron expressed understanding that cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) could shock Muslims, but said that this could never be used to justify violence, in an interview with Al-Jazeera broadcast yesterday. “I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures, but I will never accept that violence can be justified,” he told the channel in the wake of the killing of three people inside a Nice church by a young Tunisian.

“I consider it our duty to protect our freedoms and our rights,” he added. Protests erupted Friday in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Mauritania and Lebanon, the latest in a string of mass rallies denouncing France. Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday “strongly condemned” Macron’s defense of the right to publish such cartoons. In an apparent bid to reach out to Muslims, Macron gave a long interview setting out his vision to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, seeking to strike a softer tone.

French brands have long enjoyed prestige in the Gulf, but the country’s clout in the conservative region is in jeopardy amid fury over the French president’s defense of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In Saudi Arabia, a Saudi citizen wielding a knife wounded a guard at the French consulate in the Red Sea city of Jeddah on Thursday, while in parts of the Gulf retailers and consumers have boycotted French products.

In Kuwait, 60 supermarkets have stripped French products from shelves and several travel agents have discontinued trips to France. “We are boycotting French products to deliver an economic message, which is that the Prophet (PBUH) is a red line that cannot be crossed,” said Kuwait City store manager Khaled Hussein.

Qatar’s Al-Meera, a supermarket chain with a government minister as its chairman, has stopped stocking all French products. Two official sources told AFP Qatar will boycott the Paris Peace Forum due to be held Nov 11-13, though the government would not confirm such a decision had been made.

Gerd Nonneman, a professor of Gulf studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, said the long-term impact of the controversy depended on Macron’s next steps. “If Macron continues to double down, then there will indeed be a longer-term reputational effect and probably a modest commercial one as well,” he told AFP. “But that won’t be a long-term effect – as long as Macron finds different language in the next few months.”

Dozens of prominent French brands are active in the Gulf, including construction companies, retailers and luxury labels like Louis Vuitton, beloved in the wealthy region. French showpieces in the Gulf include the Louvre Abu Dhabi gallery in the United Arab Emirates, the Jean Nouvel-designed National Museum in the Qatari capital, Doha, and the under-construction Jeddah metro.

France also sells billions of euros worth of military hardware and tech to wealthy Gulf monarchies, showcasing its air force at the Dubai airshow by filling the sky with a vapor trail in the colors of the French flag. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been more muted than Kuwait and Qatar in their criticisms of France in the wake of Macron’s comments.

Saudi Arabia is France’s largest regional trade partner, with bilateral exchange worth €10 billion ($11.7 billion) in 2018, while Paris’ economic ties with the UAE were worth €4.5 billion, according to the latest French treasury figures. In both countries, boycott calls were confined to social media. Riyadh issued a statement criticizing “offensive cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH)”, but Royal United Services Institute associate fellow Michael Stephens said there was no concrete action from the kingdom.

“The UAE and Saudi Arabia have allowed a gentle criticism from their clerical establishment, but there has been no pushback at all from the government,” he said. European Council on Foreign Relations Research fellow Cinzia Bianco said the UAE was “restraining their reactions” on the cartoon issue. “It comes even easier when the target is someone they consider an ally.”

H A Hellyer, nonresident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Gulf countries’ actions could also be tempered in the wake of the Jeddah attack and another on the same day in Nice. “After the Nice killings on Thursday, there will be less appetite to criticize France,” Hellyer said.

Bianco pointed to another way the recent controversy could further jeopardize French relations in the region if it were to drive a wedge between France and Qatar. As a result of an embargo imposed on Qatar in 2017, the kingdom has grown closer to Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has denounced Macron’s defense of the cartoon and joined calls for a boycott of French goods. “France’s growing geopolitical hostility (to) Turkey could really harm relations between France and Turkey’s closest ally in the Gulf – Qatar,” said Bianco.

For three years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have boycotted Qatari goods, closed their airspace, and barred entry to Qataris over allegations Doha backs radical Islamist groups and Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran – claims Qatar denies. In Qatar today, however, the talk of boycotts is focused on France. One resident showed AFP an illustrated cheat-sheet of 100 French brands to boycott, including Evian water and Lacoste clothes. “Offending our religion and our Prophet (PBUH) is something that you shouldn’t do – I won’t be buying or supporting any French brands,” he said. – Agencies