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Macron says can ‘understand’ Muslim shock over Muhammad cartoons

But amid protests, French president tells Al-Jazeera violence over caricatures cannot be justified

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks to the press as Nice's mayor Christian Estrosi (R) listens outside the the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a jihadist attack in the city. (Eric Gaillard/POOL/AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks to the press as Nice's mayor Christian Estrosi (R) listens outside the the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a jihadist attack in the city. (Eric Gaillard/POOL/AFP)

PARIS, France (AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron said that he could understand if Muslims were shocked by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as French authorities on Saturday sought to ascertain if a young Tunisian suspected of killing three people in a knife rampage inside a Nice church had outside help.

France is on edge after the republication in early September of cartoons of Muhammad by the Charlie Hebdo weekly, which was followed by an attack outside its former offices, the beheading of a teacher and now the attack in Nice.

Macron sparked protests in the Muslim world after the murder earlier this month of teacher Samuel Paty — who had shown his class a cartoon of Muhammad — by saying France would never renounce its right to caricature.

But in an apparent bid to reach out to Muslims, Macron gave a long interview setting out his vision to Qatar-based TV channel Al-Jazeera, seeking to strike a softer tone.

A man holds a photograph of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, stamped with a shoe mark, during a protest against France in Istanbul, October 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

“I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures but I will never accept that violence can be justified,” he said.

“I consider it our duty to protect our freedoms and our rights,” he added in an extract of the interview to be broadcast Saturday.

‘Too early to say’

France is still reeling from the latest attack in Nice which Macron has already described as “Islamist” terror.

Brahim Issaoui, 21, arrived in Europe from Tunisia only last month and, according to prosecutors, killed the sexton, a Brazilian woman, and a French woman in the attack in the Notre-Dame Basilica on Thursday morning.

French soldiers secure the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 30, 2020 during a tribute to the victims killed by a knife attacker the day before. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP)

The attacker cut the throat of Nadine Devillers, 60, and the sexton Vincent Loques, 55. A Brazilian mother, Simone Barreto Silva, who was stabbed several times, took refuge in a nearby restaurant but died of her wounds there.

Issaoui was shot by police multiple times and is currently in grave condition in the hospital. Investigators have been unable to question him and his precise motivations remain unclear.

“It is still too early to say if there were others complicit, what his motivations were in coming to France and when this idea took root in him,” said a source close to the inquiry who asked not to be named.

Investigators believe Issaoui arrived illegally in Europe on Italy’s Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on September 20. He then arrived at the mainland Italian port of Bari on October 9 before coming to Nice just one or two days before the attack.

Yassin, the brother of the Nice assailant Brahim Issaoui, who a day earlier killed three people and wounded several others in the southern French city of Nice, shows his picture in front of the family home in the Tunisian city of Sfax, on October 30, 2020. (Photo by Fethi Belaid / AFP)

French police are currently holding three people for questioning in the investigation, which is focusing on two telephones found on the suspect after the attack.

A first man, 47, was detained on Thursday evening after being seen next to the attacker on surveillance footage the day before the attack.

The second individual, suspected of contacting Issaoui the day before the attack, was held on Friday.

Police said Saturday a third man, aged 33, was arrested after being present when the home of the second suspect was raided.

Global threat to France

The attack came with France still in shock over the October 16 beheading of teacher Paty by a suspected Islamist terrorist from Russia’s region of Chechnya.

Relatives and colleagues hold a picture of Samuel Paty during the ‘Marche Blanche’ in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris, on October 20, 2020, in solidarity after a teacher was beheaded for showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

The teacher had shown a class a cartoon of Muhammad in the wake of the controversy generated by the reprinting of the caricatures by Charlie Hebdo to mark the beginning of the trial of suspects over the massacre of its staff in January 2015.

Paty, 47, became the target of an online hate campaign over his choice of lesson material. His killer, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee who had been living in France since he was a child, was shot dead by police. Before his death, he posted a picture of the teacher’s severed head on Twitter.

At least seven people have been charged in the murder, including two teenagers who were paid to help the killer identify the teacher. The parent of one of Paty’s students, who started the social media campaign against the teacher even though his daughter was not in class when the cartoons were shown, was also charged.

The parent of one of Paty’s students, who started the social media campaign against the teacher even though his daughter was not in class when the cartoons were shown, was also charged.

Even before that attack, Macron had promised a tough new campaign against Islamist radicalism which had aroused controversy and condemnation from Muslims around the world.

A poster of French President Emmanuel Macron hangs on a pole during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan on October 30, 2020. (Photo by Farooq NAEEM / AFP)

Protests erupted Friday in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Mauritania, and Lebanon, the latest in a string of mass rallies denouncing France.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Saturday “strongly condemned” Macron’s defense of the right to publish such cartoons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that French citizens face a security risk “wherever they are” in the wake of the attack, saying alerts had been sent to all French nationals abroad.

In Issaoui’s hometown of Sfax in central Tunisia, his family told AFP they struggled to believe he had carried out the attack but relatives said he had turned to religion and isolated himself in the past two years.

TOI staff contributed to this report.

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