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French product boycott: Is North Africa also getting on board?

By Frida Dahmani, Jules Crétois
Posted on Wednesday, 28 October 2020 17:19

Pakistan France Protest
Supporters of the religious group, "Tahaful-e-Islam Pakistan," burn representations of the French flags with defaced images of French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest against the publishing of caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad they deem blasphemous, in Karachi, Pakistan, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)/

While calls to boycott French products are growing in the Muslim world after a speech President Emmanuel Macron gave about controversial political cartoons and the murder of a teacher set off a controversy, the movement is slow to get off the ground in North Africa.

It all started with the Gulf states, especially Kuwait and Qatar, where on 23 October several supermarket chains pulled French food products such as cheese and jam from their shelves.

The reason: remarks French President Emmanuel Macron made during a tribute to the murdered teacher Samuel Paty on 21 October, ones asserting that France wouldn’t stop publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

‘Deliberate abuse of Islam and its symbols’

Qatar University also announced that it would postpone its French Cultural Week event due to what it viewed as “the deliberate abuse of Islam and its symbols”. For its part, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation denounced the “discourse from certain French politicians, which it deems to be harmful to Muslim-French relations”. And the Kuwaiti secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf, described the French President’s words directed at “Islam and Muslims” as “irresponsible”.

The French foreign affairs ministry appealed to the governments of the countries involved to “stop” issuing calls for boycott, which “distort the positions France has upheld in favour of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the rejection of any incitement to hatred”. On social media, in response to the calls, the hashtag #Boycott_France_Products has been shared frequently over the past three days.

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In North Africa, authorities have also slammed Macron’s comments, or more specifically the idea of continuing to allow such cartoons to be published. The Moroccan foreign affairs ministry published a short statement on 25 October in which it said it “strongly condemns continuing the publication of cartoons insulting Islam and Prophet Sidna Mohammed”.

In the ministry’s view, the cartoons “reflect the immaturity of their perpetrators and reaffirm that the freedom of some ends where the freedom and beliefs of others begin”. Morocco’s prime minister Sâadeddine Othmani also posted the statement on his Twitter account. In spite of this reaction, nothing has been said for the time being about boycotting French products.

“Our French clients are following the situation closely, but the movement is limited to the Middle East for now,” said Moncef Belkhayat, a former Moroccan minister of youth and sports. Today, he devotes his energy exclusively to business pursuits, including his post as chairman of the communications company WB Africa.

Several French firms with Moroccan subsidiaries are being instructed “not to make any move for the time being”, according to an executive, “seeing as the movement has not yet gained traction here [in Morocco]. It’s pointless to panic and fumble communications.

‘I am Mohammed, I am not Charlie Hebdo’

Of course, calls for boycott are being spread on Moroccan social media. For instance, supporters of the Joint Committee for the Defence of Islamist Detainees, a Salafist-leaning group that organised demonstrations using the slogan “I am Mohammed, I am not Charlie Hebdo” in 2015, are circulating them.

In Morocco, the calls to boycott French companies bring back memories of events that unfolded in 2018. A protest campaign against high food prices launched on social media encouraged consumers to boycott brands accused of taking advantage of their dominate market position to charge expensive prices. Centrale Danone, a Moroccan subsidiary of the French group Danone, was one such brand. The 2018 boycott caused France’s growth to fall by one percentage point.

In Tunisia, apart from the radical parliamentarian Rached Khiari, who justified Paty’s killing, the position President Macron has taken has triggered little reaction. But anger was brewing and as soon as another conservative member of parliament, Yassine Ayari, suggested boycotting the Francophonie Summit, a large majority of the public got behind him and expressed indignation against France.

In a Facebook post dating back to 2019, Ayari, a member of the France Nord 1 constituency, lashed out at France, accusing it of “ridiculing and looking down on our beliefs and imposing restrictions on various cultures on its soil for political and electoral reasons, far from showing mutual respect”.

Finally, the Islamist coalition Al Karama issued a statement “firmly condemning racism towards Arabs and Muslims, which changes from day to day and has culminated in the republication of French cartoons insulting the Holy Prophet”.

Interconnected countries

The Tunisian historian Kmar Bendana downplayed the controversy: “This is just one in a long line of outbursts. Even though our circumstances are different, a French issue is being transposed to Tunisia. Our countries are interconnected through globalisation, but each has their own reality. The origin of the crisis is how behind the times the elites in our country are.” Numbers also dictate a reality: with trade totalling €7.8bn ($9.2bn) and a community of almost 800,000 Tunisians in France, Tunisia is greatly dependent on France.

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For France, the country is a strategic ally in the region, to such an extent that during French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Tunisia on 22 October, a €300m aid package was announced alongside €500,000 worth of health supplies and equipment to address the Covid-19 outbreak there.

As for Algeria, on 24 October the Islamist-affiliated Movement for the Society of Peace called on “Algeria’s public institutions, chiefly the presidency, to condemn Macron’s statements and take an appropriate stand in the diplomatic, political and economic arenas, in accordance with the pledge to respect the Muslim religion and its glory, and in a spirit of solidarity with Algerian opinion.” For now, their call hasn’t been answered.

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