CAIRO - 18 November 2020: At a time when national economies worldwide are anticipating a global recession because of the COVID-19 pandemic, France is facing additional pressure amid calls to boycott its products in Arab and Muslim countries.
The boycott calls came in response to statements by French President Emmanuel Macron on October 21, which were considered offensive to Islam and to the Prophet Mohamed. At a tribute to a 47-year-old French teacher who was murdered by an 18-year-old Russian-born refugee of Chechen descent in October for showing one of the ‘Charlie Hebdo cartoons’ about Prophet Muhammad to his pupils, the French president affirmed that France would not “renounce the caricatures”. Moreover, following the official memorial, the cartoons were projected onto town halls in France, reigniting a wave of anger among Muslims against the ‘offensive’ cartoons, which were first published in 2015.
In response, the hashtags #except_the_messenger_of_Allah and #Boycott_French_Products started trending on social media by the end of October, calling to boycott French commodi- ties and brands, including food products such as ‘President’ and ‘La Vache Qui Rit’ cheese, ‘Danone’, ‘Activia’ and ‘Evian’; French cars such as ‘Peugeot’ and ‘Citroen’; ‘Tefal’ and ‘Moulinex’, as well as famous fashion brands L’Oréal, Garnier, Chloe, Chanel, Nina Ricci, Cartier, Lancôme, LACOSTE, Louis Vuitton, and Given- chy. Carrefour supermarket has also been sub- ject to an intense social media campaign, being a popular French brand that is managed by a UAE company. In response, the retail company issued a press release clarifying that it is fully owned by UAE-based Majid Al-Futtaim in 16 countries across the Middle East.
The campaign was not limited to the virtual world. Videos from Qatari and Kuwaiti stores taking French products off their shelves have also gone viral. Similarly, in Egypt, one supermarket chain, and a number of shopping malls have dis- posed of all French products.
What is going on today is quite similar to another campaign against Danish products back in 2005, when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten pub- lished offensive cartoons of the Prophet. It has been reported that the boycott was one of the most effective pressure tools exercised by Muslims against Denmark, causing the latter to lose half of its exports to the Middle East and nearly 20 percent of its global exports.
The scope and impact of the recent French boycott campaign is, however, still not clear, at a time when France is already burdened by the repercussions of the Coronavirus health crisis.
Unpacking the economic impact
Businesses that are expected to be affected by the boycott include large stores and grain export companies, as well as the energy, defense, fashion and luxury goods sectors.
France is a major exporter of grains in the world; and some of its largest markets are located in Muslim-majority countries. Accord- ing to data from the Ministry of Agriculture in Paris, Algeria is the tenth largest export market for French agricultural products, amounting to about €1.4 billion in 2019. Meanwhile, Morocco ranks 17, with exports amounting to €700 million the same year.
In a press statement addressing the boycott calls, economic expert Mahmoud Ibrahim, explained that the French food industry has been the most affected so far, adding that the cam- paign has also extended to affect touristic trips headed to France. Referring to a report by the French news site RFI, which revealed the deci- sion of 430 international travel agencies to suspend the purchase of airline tickets to France, Ibrahim explained that the tourism sector is one of the most important sectors in the French economy, as it represents about 8 percent of the GDP, generates €56.2 billion in revenues and provides 2 million direct and indirect jobs.
In contrast, Ibrahim stated that the fashion and beauty sectors are the least affected so far, noting that the markets of the Middle East and the Islamic world represent only 3 percent of French fashion and beauty products exports. He further added that that major companies represent the power centers in capital countries such as France, which in turn will put pressure on the French government. He pointed out that the boycott news has acquired the lion’s share of press and media coverage by French institutions, as it poses a serious threat to the French economy, which is already bleeding due to the repercussions of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Indeed, amid the campaign, the French Foreign Ministry called on the countries of the Islamic world not to boycott their products, stressing that Muslims are part of the national fabric in France. Moreover, French President Macron announced that he understood the anger of Muslims because of the publication of the car- toons, noting however that this does not justify violence. “I understand the feelings that this arouses, I respect them. But I want you to un- derstand the role that I have. My role is to calm things down, as I am doing here, but at the same time it is to protect the rights [of freedim of expression],” Macron stated. “I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw... That doesn’t mean that I personally support everything we say, think, draw, but ... I consider that it is our vocation to protect [these freedoms and human rights] and also to protect the sovereignty of the French people.”
Despite the sheer spread of the campaign and the attention it has received, some people have rejected it, arguing that boycotting French products that are manufactured within local borders might harm the national economies more than the French one.
How can the boycott affect the Egyptian economy?
One of the countries where calls to boycott French products have been circulated is Egypt, whose economic and trade relations with France encompass agricultural food products, banking, finance, telecommunications, automotive manu- facturing, medicine, construction, environment, new renewable energy, and tourism.
Current French investments in Egypt stand at €5 billion, and trade exchange has reached €3 billion, according to Managing Director of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Egypt Hassan Behnam. Moreover, he cites that there is a total of 165 French companies in Egypt, employing 38,000 people.
Opinions regarding the impact of the boycott on the Egyptian economy have differed.
Senior Economist at the League of Arab States Mahmoud Fath-Allah does not believe that the boycott of French goods will lead to tangible harm to either side. “The French goods imported by Egypt are not strategic commodities and most of them are medicines, cars, cereals with plenty of alternatives available in the local mar- ket,” he tells Egypt Today, adding that trade relations between Egypt and France rep- resent only 2 to 2.5 percent of Egypt’s imports or exports and about halve percent of France’s global trade.
Fath-Allah further notes that the real problem of the boycott lies in the difficulty of differentiating between what is French originated and what is not, in the era of globalization and the distribution of supply chain and production dispatching around the world. “We may find many goods with French brands, but they are in fact manufactured in Egypt; and therefore, they are Egyptian goods ... and many of the boycott promoters may not know that most of these products are under the franchise system where the French company as the trademark owner (Franchisor) charges the Egyptian investor (Franchisee) loyalty fees for the rights to exploit the trademark, plus a percentage of the value of total sales,” he explains, noting that the negative impact of the boycott would fall mostly on the owner of the lo- cal investment and not the brand owner. Moreover, Fath-Allah points out that the boycott will impact Egyptian workers in French enterprises in Egypt.
Moreover, economic expert Khaled El-Shafei said in a press statement, “When dealing with economic issues, we do not prefer the idea and method of boycotting, especially in light of the existence of international trade agreements that must be respected, but the best thing is to strengthen the local product and the national industry; and this is what is currently happening through a plan announced by the state and a special interest from the President to support the local industry.”
In contrast, former head of the Importers Divi- sion at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce Ahmed Shiha told a local media outlet that the losses that traders or importers are exposed to as a result of boycotting France and its products are of no value in the face of abuse of the faith. “We support this campaign to respond to the French excess.” He further stressed that there are alternatives that are finer, more economical, and better than French products.