French President Emmanuel Macron says he understands the feelings of Muslims, who are shocked by the portrayal of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, but added that the “radical Islam” he is trying to combat poses a threat to all people, especially for Muslims.

Macron’s comments on Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview slated to air in full on Saturday come amid mounting tension between the French government and the Muslim world over the cartoons Muslims consider blasphemous.

“The cartoons are not a government project, but come from free and independent newspapers that are not affiliated with the government,” said Macron.

He was referring to the recent republication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo magazine to mark the opening of the trial for a fatal attack on its employees in 2015, when the Paris-based publication’s cartoons were cited as the cause of the attack.

Macron had defended the “right to blasphemy” under free speech at the time of the re-release in September, weeks before sparking a backlash from Muslim activists on October 2 when he made a speech claiming Islam was “in crisis worldwide” and resigned his plan to reform Islam to make it compatible with the republican values ​​of his country.

The French President reiterated his stance on the cartoons after a French teacher who showed the cartoons to his students in class during a discussion on free speech was beheaded by an attacker on October 16. Last week the images were projected onto French government buildings.

“Muslims the First Victims”

While Muslims in France have condemned the teacher’s killing, they have also voiced fears of collective punishment when the government cracked down on Islamic organizations and vigilante groups attacked mosques.

Meanwhile, Macron’s comments aroused anger in the Muslim world and led tens of thousands of people – from Pakistan to Bangladesh to the Palestinian Territories – to join protests against France. As the debate on Islam and freedom of expression deepened in recent weeks, many officials and demonstrators in Muslim-majority countries called for a boycott of products made in France.

“I think the reactions are down to lies and distortions of my words because people understand that I support these cartoons,” Macron said.

The Prophet is deeply revered by Muslims and any kind of visual representation is forbidden in Islam. The cartoons in question are viewed by them as insulting and Islamophobic because they associate Islam with “terrorism”.

“I understand the feelings that are being expressed and I respect them. But you have to understand my role now, it’s about doing two things: promoting calm and protecting these rights, ”Macron said in an interview.

“There are people in the world today who distort Islam and kill, slaughter in the name of this religion they claim to defend … today some extremist movements and individuals practice violence in the name of Islam.”

“Of course this is a problem for Islam because Muslims are the first victims,” ​​Macron continued. “More than 80 percent of the victims of terrorism are Muslim and that is a problem for all of us.”

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, said Macron’s comments appeared to be “an attempt to clarify where he stands on issues that matter to France and the Muslim world”.

“I think the damage is done. But I’m not sure it has to escalate further because at the end of the day … there is no winner. Europe stands shoulder to shoulder against a number of countries in the Muslim world on cultural and religious issues and interpretations of these issues, ”said Bishara.

“Nobody is a winner, and if there are losers there will be many Muslims in Europe. So it is in everyone’s interest, if the French President is sincere, to contextualize and trace back some of the things he said – he now clearly understands that they were controversial and he did not want to criticize Islam as a religion – that should begin improving the atmosphere between France, Europe and the Muslim world. “

France received another shock on Thursday when a Tunisian man used a knife to kill three people in a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice. On the same day, a Saudi man stabbed and wounded a security guard at the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Leaders from many Muslim countries have expressed their condolences to France after the Nice attack and expressed their solidarity as they condemned the violence.