PARIS (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has hit back at suggestions by some French presidential candidates that Riyadh funds Islamist extremism in France and that bilateral ties between the two allies should be reviewed.
With less than four months before France’s elections, the favorites - conservative Francois Fillon and far-right National Front Marine Le Pen - have both stepped up anti-Gulf rhetoric in recent weeks.
Both say Paris should review ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar and suggest it has an unhealthy relationship with countries they say propagate a radical Islamist ideology in France.
“I can’t comment on what’s said during an election campaign, but I know there is a misperception of Saudi Arabia,” Adel al-Jubeir told reporters late on Monday. “People say Saudi Arabia is extremism. Saudi Arabia is intolerance. Saudi Arabia is funding radical institutions and I always say it’s not true.”
The debate in France has been stoked by a spate of Islamist militant attacks over the last two years, which prompted calls for a stricter control of foreign financing of mosques.
It also touches the core French principle of secularism in public life that aims to separate religion from state affairs.
Former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and current Socialist President Francois Hollande both aligned themselves with Gulf Arab Sunni states and adopted a hawkish attitude to their main Shi’ite rival Iran.
That stance has brought criticism at home, with certain lawmakers saying Paris is thinking short-term, picking Sunnis over Shi’ites in the region and ignoring Gulf influence domestically.
“When people say the Saudis are funding this, I say show me. Nobody has anything to show, but the image has stuck and becomes a reality,” Jubeir said.
A French parliamentary report on mosque financing concluded in July that overseas financing was “marginal”.
According to the Saudi Embassy, the kingdom has financed eight mosques around the country, at a cost of about 3.7 million euros, and paid salaries for 14 imams.
“They (extremists) want Mecca and Medina. For people to think that we would be funding a mindset whose objective is to kill us, you’d have to assume we were either naive or not very smart,” he said.
Jubeir said critical French politicians would be better off looking at the strong trade, political and security ties between the countries and assess positively Riyadh’s management of oil markets and financial investments to help global economic growth.
“I would imagine things should be the other way round and that they would want stronger French-Saudi ties,” he said.
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Tom Heneghan