France’s Macron to Muslims: I Hear Your Anger, but Won’t Accept Violence

November 1, 2020 Updated: November 1, 2020

PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday he respected Muslims who were shocked by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad but that was no excuse for violence, as his officials ramped up security after a knife attack in a French church that killed three people this week.

An assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) beheaded a woman and killed two other people in a church in Nice on Thursday, in France’s second deadly knife attack in two weeks with a suspected Islamist motive.

The suspected assailant, a 21-year-old from Tunisia, was shot by police and is now in critical condition in a hospital. France’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor has said the man had arrived in Europe on Sept. 20 in Lampedusa, the Italian island off Tunisia.

Police said on Saturday that another person was taken into custody in connection with the attack. That person joins three others already in custody on suspicion of contacts with the attacker.

Macron has deployed thousands of soldiers to protect sites such as places of worship and schools, and ministers have warned that other Islamist terrorist attacks could take place.

The Nice attack, on the day Muslims celebrated the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, came amid growing Muslim anger across the world over France’s defence of the right to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet.

A policeman carries flowers in front of the Notre Dame church
A policeman carries flowers in front of the Notre Dame church in tribute to the victims of a deadly knife attack in Nice, France, on Oct. 30, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

On Oct. 16, Samuel Paty, a school teacher in a Paris suburb, was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen who was apparently incensed by the teacher showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad in class during a civics lesson.

Protesters have denounced France in street rallies in several Muslim-majority countries, and some have called for boycotts of French goods.

France, on edge in anticipation of more possible attacks, was jolted on Saturday evening when a Greek Orthodox priest was shot and wounded in his church in the south-eastern city of Lyon. But officials gave no indication that terrorism was suspected.

Macron Outreach

In an effort to rectify what he said were misapprehensions about France’s intentions in the Muslim world, Macron gave an interview to Arabic television network Al Jazeera that was broadcast on Saturday.

In it, he said France would not back down in the face of violence and would defend the right to free expression, including the publication of cartoons.

But he stressed that did not mean he or his officials supported the cartoons, which Muslims consider blasphemous, or that France was in any way anti-Muslim.

“So I understand and respect that people could be shocked by these cartoons, but I will never accept that one can justify physical violence over these cartoons, and I will always defend the freedom in my country to write, to think, to draw,” Macron said, according to an interview transcript released by his office.

“My role is to calm things down, which is what I’m doing, but at the same time, it’s to protect these rights.”

By Sarah White and Michel Rose