In an exclusive interview with al-Jazeera on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron focused on increasing tensions between Ankara and Paris, which he said may be defused if Turkey shows respect with regard to both France and NATO member states.
Macron accused Turkey of demonstrating a "bellicose attitude towards its NATO allies", and slammed what he described as Ankara's "deeply aggressive" policy in the eastern Mediterranean.
"I note that Turkey has imperial inclinations in the region and I think that these imperial inclinations are not a good thing for the stability of the region, that's it", the French president pointed out, also condemning Ankara's military operation in Syria and its reluctance to adhere to a Libya-related arms embargo.
He made it clear France wants bilateral tensions to "calm down" but that this is only possible if the "Turkish president [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] respects France, respects the European Union, respects its values, does not tell lies, and does not utter insults".
Tensions escalated late last week, when Paris recalled its ambassador to Turkey after Erdogan called for Macron to undergo "mnetal checks" because of his treatment of "millions of members" of France's Muslim community.
"President Erdogan's comments are unacceptable. Outrage and insult are not a method", Macron's office said in a statement at the time.
The French president earlier pledged that Paris would continue to protect freedom of speech, including the right of people to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and vowed to step up efforts against extremism, creating what he described as "enlightened Islam" in France.
The remarks, which sparked harsh criticism from multiple Muslim countries and Islamic organisations, followed a terrorist attack on the outskirts of Paris on 16 October, when a radicalised teen killed and decapitated French teacher Samuel Paty after he showed caricatures of Muhammad during a free speech class.
Macron Says He Understands Muslims' Feelings Over Cartoons
In the al-Jazeera interview, Macron specifically touched upon the topic, stressing that he understands the feelings of Muslims and adding that "radical Islam" remains a threat to all people, especially Muslims themselves.
"I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures, but I will never accept that violence can be justified. I understand the feelings that this arouses, I respect them. But I want you to understand 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 these rights", Macron said, vowing that he will "always defend the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw" in his country.
Preisdent Macron also argued that the negative reaction by Muslims to his statements was a result of "lies and distortions" of his words because people mistakenly thought that he supported cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"The caricatures are not a governmental project, but emerged from free and independent newspapers that are not affiliated with the government", Macron added.
He also promised to deploy 7,000 soldiers to protect key sites around the country as France's national security alert has been increased to the highest level.