France said it would recall its envoy to Turkey for consultations following “unacceptable” comments by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who suggested Emmanuel Macron, his French counterpart needed mental health treatment.
Erdogan’s remarks are the latest sign of a growing backlash in the Islamic world, including calls for a boycott of French goods, sparked by Macron’s claim that Islam is in crisis.
France and its Nato ally are at loggerheads over a range of issues, including maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and the escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdoğan is launching libel proceedings against the French magazine Le Point after it suggested he was the exterminator of Syrian Kurds.
Ankara has been particularly incensed by a campaign championed by Macron to protect France’s secular values against radical Islam, a debate given fresh impetus by the murder of a teacher who showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.
“What’s the problem of the individual called Macron with Islam and with the Muslims?” he asked.
“Macron needs mental treatment,” Erdoğan added, while indicating he did not expect the French leader to win a fresh mandate in the 2022 elections. He said: “You are constantly picking on Erdoğan. This will not earn you anything. There will be elections (in France) … We will see your (Macron’s) fate. I don’t think he has a long way to go. Why? He has not achieved anything for France and he should do for himself.”
Macron’s office described the comments as insulting and said the French ambassador to Ankara, Hervé Magro, would be recalled for consultations, a stop short of rupturing diplomatic relations by withdrawing the ambassador permanently.
Both presidents have their own domestic political reasons for continuing the dispute. Macron needs to show that he can be as challenging to Islamic extremism as his political opponents on the right. The debate in France about secularism and Islamism has been reignited by the brutal murder of a teacher who showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.
Erdogan is also under his own domestic pressure, and increasingly trying to present himself as the leader of the Sunni movement in the Islamic world.
The insidious policy of offensive cartoons, accusations of separatism against Muslims and raids on mosques had nothing to do with freedom of expression, Erdogan’s communications chief Fahrettin Altun said on Twitter. “This is about intimidating Muslims and reminding them that they are welcome to continue to make Europe’s economy work, but that they will never be a part of it, he added. He also argued that this attitude towards Muslims was “eerily familiar” and resembled “the demonisation of European Jews in the 1920s”.
French officials said “President Erdoğan’s comments are unacceptable. Excess and rudeness are not a method. We demand that Erdoğan change the course of his policy because it is dangerous in every respect.”
The Élysée official, who asked not to be named, also said France had noted “the absence of messages of condolence and support” from the Turkish president after the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty outside Paris.
The official also expressed concern over calls by Ankara for a boycott of French goods.
Macron this month described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.
The French president had announced stricter oversight of schooling and better control over foreign funding of mosques.
The dispute is already escalating on social media over the calls to shun French goods and services. In Qatar, a close ally of Turkey, a French cultural week has been postponed. Two major distribution chains said they were withdrawing French products including jams.
In Kuwait, Macron was denounced by the parliament, and travel agencies suspended trips to France. In Tehran, the Iranian government spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Saturday there was “no justification to insult and disrespect a heavenly figure respected by 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.”
Morocco’s foreign ministry said on Sunday the continuing publication of cartoons of Mohammed was “an act of provocation”.
The Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, said “the hallmark of a leader is that he unites human beings as Mandela did rather than dividing them. This is a time when President Macron could have put healing tough and creating space rather than creating further polarisation and marginalisation that inevitably leads to greater radicalisation”
In France, the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, promised teaching unions he would provide clear educational guidelines before the restart of the school year on 2 November.
Macron had said Paty was the embodiment of the republic because he “taught pupils to become citizens” and “fought for freedom and reason”.
France is expected to reform the Observatory of Secularism, the agency set up to advise the government on how to enforce secularism in practice in France. Members of the Observatory have defended themselves from the charge of being too lax by saying there is an obligation on public servants to be neutral on religious issues, but the same requirements are not applied to the general public.
All three of the major international disputes on which Turkey and France are at odds are at potentially dangerous turning points. In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has disappointed Nato mediators by extending a navigational text, or Navtex, allowing its seismic research vessel Oruc Reis to continue research in disputed waters until 4 November, the day after the US election.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, the Turkish backed Azerbaijani army vowed on Sunday to continue its military operations in six different regions, claiming to have hit Armenian installations.