French President Emmanuel Macron said he can understand why Muslims were shocked by caricatures depicting the prophet Muhammad.
But in an interview with Al Jazeera broadcast on Saturday, he said he could never accept the issue being used to justify violence.
“I understand and respect that we can be shocked by these caricatures,” Macron said.
“I will never accept that we can justify physical violence for these caricatures and I will always defend in my country the freedom to say, to write, to think, to draw.”
Tensions flared with some Muslim majority countries who have held anti-Macron protests and called for a boycott of French products after he publically promised France would not “renounce the caricatures”.
Macron made the comments following the October 16 murder of French school teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed after he showed his class drawings of the prophet during a debate on free speech.
France was also shaken on Thursday by a deadly knife attack on a church in Nice, the third suspected Islamist attack in the country in little more than a month.
The country has raised its national security alert to the highest level and security has increased at places of worship and schools.
Macron tried to reach out to Muslims, telling the Qatar-based channel: “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.”
The president also slammed “distortions” from political and religious leaders and the media over the depictions of the prophet, saying too often people were led to believe that they were created by the French state.
“Everywhere these last weeks in the Muslim world, we have tried to aggregate the two, by distorting my remarks, by telling lies, by saying the President of the French Republic and thus France, they have a problem with Islam.
“No, we have no problem with Islam. None,” he said.
He also denounced calls for a boycott of French goods, saying it was “unworthy” and “unacceptable”.
BY OSMAN HUSSEIN ALI