French President Emmanuel Macron said he can understand Muslims being shocked by cartoons of the prophet Muhammad but that he can never accept them being used to justify violence.
The French leader spoke to Al Jazeera in an interview released on Saturday in which he sought to clarify his position on Islam and defuse tensions that flared following the killing of a teacher who showed caricatures of Muhammad to his pupils.
“I understand and respect that we can be shocked by these caricatures. I will never accept that we can justify physical violence for these caricatures and I will always defend in my country the freedom to say, to write, to think, to draw,” Macron said.
He emphasised that the French press is free to publish what it wants and that what is released is therefore not the official position of the government.
“But does the president think this right should be removed? The answer is no because this is the right of the French people.”
He also accused some of spreading “lies and distortions” about what he has said in recent days.
Last month, Macron said in a speech that “Islam is in crisis” and unveiled new measures to combat radical Islamism on French soil.
He doubled down on his comments following the beheading of Samuel Paty on October 16. The history-geography teacher was killed after he showed caricatures of the prophet Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of expression.
Macron’s comments have sparked anti-French protests in Muslim-majority countries and a boycott of French products.
Three attacks have since unfolded including a deadly knife attack on a Nice church.
“I have seen too many people in the last few days saying unacceptable things about France, corroborating all the lies said about us, about what I had said and being tacit accomplices to the worst,” he told Al Jazeera.
France, he said, is not fighting Islam but radical Islamism.
“Today, in the name of Islam and by distorting this religion, violent extremists are doing the worst,” he added.
He noted that the overwhelming majority of the victims of terrorism over the last four decades were Muslims and argued that measures unveiled recently aimed to also protect French citizens of Muslim faith.
Measures to curb radical Islamism include the end of a system allowing Imams to train abroad, more transparency in religious funding and new requirements for homeschooling.
“Everywhere these last weeks in the Muslim world, we have tried to aggregate the two, by distorting my remarks, by telling lies, by saying the President of the French Republic and thus France, they have a problem with Islam. No, we have no problem with Islam. None,” he said.