French companies ‘not threatened’ by Middle East boycott

Calls to boycott French products in the wake of the row over Islamic cartoons are not a threat to French exports, business heads have said

Published Last updated

French companies have said they are not worried about the calls to boycott their products in several Middle Eastern countries as the row over Islamic cartoons continues following the murder of teacher Samuel Paty.

On Friday October 23, calls to boycott French products began to spread in countries including Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait - with reports that major supermarkets had stripped shelves of products such as French cheese, jam, and cosmetics.

Around 430 travel agencies in Kuwait have also suspended bookings on all flights towards France, said Mohammed al-Mutairi, head of the Kuwait Travel and Tourism Agencies Association.

In Jordan, opposition party the Islamic Action Front called on citizens to boycott French products.

The boycotts came after President Macron’s declaration that France would “not renounce caricatures” of the Prophet Muhammed after the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, at a memorial at the Sorbonne.

Read the full speech translation: President Macron vows: ‘We will continue’ for Samuel Paty

Images on social media showed empty shelves as products were withdrawn from sale.

The row intensified after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Turks not to buy French products, and suggested that President Macron “needed treatment” for “mental health” issues following his comments. In response, France recalled its ambassador to Turkey and condemned President Erdogan’s words.

But now in France, business heads have said they are “not worried” about the boycott, and that it was unlikely to have a major effect on export sales.

Patrick O’Quinn, president of beauty company group FEBEA (la Fédération des entreprises de beauté) said: “Exports of French cosmetics are worth around €12 billion [per year], but the countries that are today supporting calls for boycott represent less than €1 billion.

“This will not endanger exports of French cosmetics, which are much more threatened by Covid than by boycott calls.”

Food companies appear equally calm about the boycotts.

The Bel group, which sells BabyBel and Kiri cheese; and the St Dalfour jam brand, which is based near Chambord in Loir-et-Cher, have been particularly targeted in the boycott, especially in Qatar.

But directors at St Dalfour have said that the company's Qatar business represents just 0.5% of its sales, while Jordan is at 0.2%, and Kuwait at 2%.

The directors added that they hoped the boycotts would be condemned by business leaders all the same.

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, president of small business federation MEDEF, said that the boycott was “bad news”, but called on French businesses to “resist this blackmail” and “suffer through this boycott". He said: "Let's not answer stupidity with stupidity...It's not a question of boycotting anyone, it's a question of sticking to our republican values.”

Minister of Foreign Commerce, Franck Riester, said that there would likely be “an impact, but it is too early” to calculate it exactly. Bertrand Badie, professor at university Science Po in Paris, said: “I do not think that this will be able to endanger the French economy - there are other [much bigger] problems there.”

Overall, in 2019, France exported €3.2 billion worth of products to Qatar, much less than the €70.1 billion worth of products sent to Germany, France’s biggest export partner. Every year, exports to the Middle East account for 3% of total exports, versus 58.7% exported to the European Union.

Condemnation by France

Yet, the French Foreign Affairs ministry has requested that the governments of the countries in question “immediately stop” their calls for boycotts, and said they were coming from a “radical minority”.

It said: “These calls undercut the positions defended by France in favour of free speech and thought, of the liberty of religion, and for a refusal of any appeal to hatred.”

President Macron himself tweeted that France would continue to “respect the differences in a spirit of peace... [and] would never accept hatred, and [we] will defend reasonable debate”.

Cartoons condemned

Closer to home, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Islamic council, le Conseil français du culte musulman, has said he “does not wish” cartoons and caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed to be distributed in French schools, and said that plans to do so showed a “willingness to deliberately offend Muslims”.

Yet, he said that it was wrong to suggest that France was “anti-Muslim”, and that there was a clear difference between saying that France would not “renounce” caricatures, and actively calling for their publication.

Read more: Religious cartoons planned as France honours Samuel Paty

Mr Moussaoui said: “The law allows cartoonists to caricature, but the same law also allows Muslims to dislike or even hate these cartoons. But there is no justification for killing or harming a man who makes [or shows] cartoons.”

He added: “I do not think this is the right way to explain freedom of expression to children...There are other ways to do it. There are other ways to explain mutual respect, respect for each other's freedoms.

“The duty of fraternity requires us all to renounce certain rights so that fraternity may reign in our country...There are anti-Muslim acts...but to say that France is Islamophobic is an excess that we do not accept.”

Related stories

Read the full speech translation: President Macron vows: ‘We will continue’ for Samuel Paty