How about a boycott?

French President Macron’s defence of caricatures draws the ire from Muslims from around the world

Protests against French President Macron’s overt support to making and display of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are in full swing across the globe. Macron’s defence of these acts as an exercise of freedom of expression have drawn the ire from Muslims from around the world – a manifestation of which can be seen in the form of public demonstrations, condemnations, worsening of diplomatic ties with France and a boycott of French products in several countries.

Like some other Muslim countries, the reaction in Pakistan has been very strong. Many religious groups, civil society organisations, businessmen, students and others have organised protests in their respective capacities. Countless people have changed their profile pictures on social media to “Boycott France” or similar slogans and expressed their contempt for Macron’s position.

On October 30, on the eve of Eid Milad un Nabi (PBUH), Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) took out a huge protest rally on The Mall in Lahore against the public display of caricatures in France with the approval of its head of state. The participants of the rally burned effigies of the French president and the French flag. Prime Minister Imran Khan too condemned the French president for attacking Islam rather than targeting the terrorists who resort to violence.

The business community has announced a boycott of French products imported to Pakistan. The products on the boycott list are mostly cosmetics, some food items (biscuits, cheese and mayonnaise), designer products, refined petroleum products marketed by Total, all items being sold at Carrefour stores and so on. The question some quarters are raising is: will this make an impact or have only a symbolic value only?

Mian Nauman Kabir, the Pakistan Industrial and Traders’ Associations’ Front (PIAF) tells TNS that there is no symbolism involved. He says they are boycotting French products to hit the French economy. He says the PIAF has instructed its members not to buy petrol from Total pumps and prefer Pakistan State Oil (PSO). Kabir says they are also in talks with the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FCCI) so that this boycott drive can be extended all over the country.

The PIAF chairman says they have also written letters to their members and people from various backgrounds to buy groceries from the general stores in their neighbourhoods rather than going to supermarkets like Hyperstore-Carrefour which have French partners. He says there has been no pressure on them to call this boycott.

He says Macron has started the hostilities and must bear the blame for any violence that results over the sacrilegious caricatures. He says French company Renault has a joint venture with a Pakistani company. He says they will put up strong resistance if the situation does not change in this regard.

In a statement (available to TNS), Carrefour has claimed that its operations in Pakistan are owned by UAE-based Majid Al Futtaim which operates Carrefour stores in 16 countries across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It says that Carrefour-Pakistan sources 99 percent of its products locally while working with more than 700 suppliers and partners across Pakistan. “We understand that there is some concern among consumers across the region at present and we are monitoring the situation closely. On behalf of more than 37,000 Carrefour colleagues employed by Majid Al Futtaim, we are proud to be from the region and for the region,” the statement adds. The explanation has not persuaded many to change their opinion of Carrefour’s link to France.

Imran Saleemi, secretary general of the Super Stores’ Association, Lahore, says they have not removed French products from the shelves at member stores but clearly marked that those are not for sale. This, he says, makes a stronger statement than removing them. He says apart from products of French companies, products of companies that get their products manufactured or assembled in France are also not for sale.

Analyst Hasaan Khawar says the French must realise that recent actions in France have hurt the Muslim sentiments across the world. However, he also says developing countries like Pakistan have limited options to put pressure on the French government. “Boycotting products from specific countries has emerged as an effective protest measure that can make an economic dent at least in the short term.” Khawar says. “Our own capacity to make this dent is limited. France’s total exports are $550 billion whereas Pakistan’s total imports from France are only $420 million. Nevertheless, it looks like the French leadership has realised its error and is softening its posture.”

Economist Kaiser Bengali says trade should generally not be made a tool of war. He says in this case Muslim countries have built up some pressure. He says although the volume of trade between Pakistan and France is not big its portfolio of trade and investment in African countries is quite large. Some of these countries have been French colonies in the past. If they all make a concerted effort the impact can be great. He warns that it is a double-edged sword because if a country obstructs imports from a country its exports to that country also suffer. France might, for example, choose to vote against grant of GSP Plus status to Pakistan. He says the issue of publication of sacrilegious caricatures cannot be ignored and must be taken up at diplomatic forums.

The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

How about a boycott?: French President Macron’s defence of caricatures draws the ire from Muslims from around the world