Parisians more concerned with COVID-19 than Muslim world fallout

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Paris, France – As tensions between French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mount amid a debate over Islam and freedom of expression, some in France have offered an eye-roll response, while the French president’s domestic opponents have seized on an opportunity to criticise his failure to address the deepening crisis.

The fallout between the Muslim world and France continued on Tuesday, with anger rising over Macron’s recent speech in which he said Islam was “in crisis” globally, and amid renewed support in the country for the right to display caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

“This isn’t the time for this,” Silouane Tessak, a student living in northeast Paris, told Al Jazeera. “There’s so much going on in the world, especially with the [coronavirus] health crisis. Is this really the appropriate moment for a political spat?”

Others worried the drama was creating an unnecessary distraction as France deals with record numbers of new coronavirus cases.

“I hope the public will have the intelligence to take a step back from this,” Lucien Dupont, an eastern Paris resident, told Al Jazeera. He said that there were “faults on both sides” between Macron and Erdogan, but noted that France “does not have the ability right now to handle this”.

But even with a COVID-19 second wave in full force, world leaders are watching developments closely.

The feud started over the weekend, with Erdogan questioning Macron’s mental health after the French president announced earlier this month his plan “to reform Islam” in order to make it more compatible with France’s republican values.

“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country,” Macron said on October 2.

Erdogan responded during a speech in Istanbul: “What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level.”

The French government quickly recalled its ambassador to Turkey, and condemned Erdogan’s “rudeness”.

“We are not accepting insults,” the French Elysee said in a statement shortly after the speech. “We demand Erdogan to change his policy, which is dangerous in all aspects.”

Rather than reverse course, Erdogan doubled down.

On Monday, he called on Turkish citizens to boycott French products in solidarity with Muslims in France, who he said are being “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II”.

Macron, who faces a re-election campaign in 18 months, was already under pressure from conservatives and the far right to crack down on what they term “Islamic extremism”.

In his “Islam in crisis” speech, he unveiled details of a forthcoming law designed to fight what he called “Islamic separatism”.

Meanwhile, the recent beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher who showed his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson about freedom of speech, has intensified calls for Macron to swiftly turn the proposal into law.

The French government is defiant in its stance, refusing to renounce the caricatures, deemed as offensive to Muslims.

“We will not give in, ever,” Macron wrote in a series of tweets published Sunday evening in French, Arabic and English. “We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the idea of human dignity and universal values.”

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of France’s far-left La France Insoumise party, responded to the tweets by saying Macron had “totally lost control of the situation”.

“The President of the Republic … would do well to think about his strategy. France is being demeaned, humiliated and ridiculed. What does [Macron]  intend to do apart from tweeting?” Melenchon asked.

Others in France have accused Erdogan of provocation.

In an editorial published Monday, the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper lambasted the Turkish leader for “mobilising Islamists against France,” adding “the Turkish President is constantly in need of creating new crises to distract from his own economic and democratic failures.”

The Turkish lira, meanwhile, is plunging to new depths.

“Erdogan is trying to diverge attention away from the very weak situation of the Turkish economy,” Agathe Demarais, the global forecasting director for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.

Demarais also said Erdogan was seizing the moment to present himself as a “regional protector of Muslim interests”.

While leaders, groups and the public in Muslim countries turned on Macron, amid calls for a boycott of French products and street protests, a number of European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have denounced Erdogan’s comments.

“Personal insults do not help the positive agenda that the EU [European Union] wants to pursue with Turkey,” Conte tweeted on Monday.

“We stand by France’s side in the wake of the terrorist attack that killed Samuel Paty,” Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, tweeted.

Regarding the threat of a boycott, the French trade minister has said it was too early to tell the economic impact of the campaign.

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