French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 7, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/Pool/REUTERS)

Trudeau reaffirms importance of freedom of expression in call with Macron

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed on Thursday their commitment to defending freedom of expression and human rights, as well as fighting terrorism and violent extremism, according to a readout of their telephone conversation released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Trudeau also expressed “Canada’s solidarity with the people of France following recent terrorist attacks and violence,” the readout said.

The call between the two leaders came as Trudeau was forced to clarify his comments last week about the limits of free speech after a teacher in France was beheaded by a terrorist for showing cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class discussion.

Trudeau’s comments at the time drew the ire of the opposition who criticized him for not showing more resolve in defending freedom of expression following the Oct. 16 killing of 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault also took a swipe at Trudeau for not being more forceful in defending free speech and for giving in to “blackmail of certain radical religious groups.”

Macron’s defence of the right to publish the cartoons has stoked anger and boycotts of French goods in several Muslim-majority countries.

A Palestinian Hamas supporter holds an anti-French President Emmanuel Macron picture and a banner reading ”sorry messenger of Allah” during a protest against the publications of a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad in France and Macron’s comments, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip Oct. 30, 2020. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS)

Last Friday, when pressed by reporters to declare his support for free speech in the wake of the attacks in France, Trudeau argued that “freedom of expression is not unlimited.”

“For example, it’s not allowed to cry ‘fire’ in a packed cinema,” Trudeau said in French during his press conference in Ottawa. “In a respectful society such as ours, everyone must be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others.

“There are communities experiencing huge discrimination in Canada today. So yes, we will always defend freedom of expression, but everyone must act respectfully toward others and not try to needlessly or arbitrarily hurt someone we share this planet and society with.”

Legault said Macron called him Tuesday morning to thank him for taking a strong stand on the importance of free speech, and for disagreeing with Trudeau’s Friday comments.

On Tuesday, faced with more questions about his commitment to free speech, Trudeau changed his position.

“I think it is important to continue defending freedom of expression, freedom of speech,” Trudeau said in comments in French. “Artists help us reflect and challenge our views and they contribute to our society and we will always continue to defend freedom of expression.”

Police officers walk in front of the Notre Dame church before a mass to pay tribute to the victims of a deadly knife attack in Nice, France, Nov. 1, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/REUTERS)

Trudeau also told reporters that he expects to speak with Macron “shortly” to personally convey his support and condolences following the Oct. 29 attack in Nice, that killed three parishioners at the city’s Notre-Dame basilica.

During their subsequent call on Thursday, Trudeau and Macron also spoke about their countries’ responses to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the readout said.

“The Prime Minister and the President exchanged views on global issues, such as the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the importance of dialogue and diplomacy in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” the readout said.

France is a co-chair – along with the U.S. and Russia – of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Macron has spoken out about Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave and has publicly clashed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the issue of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed.

Canada too has called on Turkey to “stay out” of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and has offered to mediate between Turkey and Greece in their dispute over exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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