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French embassies braced for cartoon backlash

French embassies, consulates and international schools in 20 Muslim countries closed their doors on Friday for fear of a violent backlash over cartoons published earlier this week by Paris-based weekly Charlie Hebdo.


French embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools in around 20 Muslim countries shut up shop on Friday – the Muslim holy day – for fear of retaliatory violence following weekly prayers. The order came from the foreign ministry, which anticipates violent demonstrations over the publishing Wednesday of Prophet Mohammed cartoons by satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. The obscene cartoons exacerbated anger among Muslim communities after more than a week of deadly protests sparked by the US-made amateurish video “Innocence of Muslims”.

Security had been beefed up on security arrangements at institutions abroad and in France, with reinforcements and armed guards on standby. The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to exercise “the greatest vigilance”, avoiding public gatherings and “sensitive buildings”. Tens of thousands of French expatriates live in Muslim countries.

Protests over the cartoons – which showed the Prophet Mohammed naked – had already begun Thursday in Tehran and Kabul. Demonstrators chanted “death to France” outside the French embassies in the two capitals. One student told TV reporters that the “doomed, nasty French” had committed an offence that the activists were willing to “sacrifice” themselves for. “What were they thinking?” he asked.

In Tunisia, French schools were shut down from Wednesday until next Monday after the ruling Islamists branded the cartoons a "new attack" on their religion. One parent outside a school in Tunis told FRANCE 24 that she was reassured by the decision. “It's better not to take any chances, given that we don't really have faith in the security system,” she said. But another thought officials were overreacting. "I don't understand the need to close for several days," he said, adding that one or two key days would be enough.

Concern at home

One Islamist militant, Mu’awiyya al-Qahtani, called for retaliatory attacks in France as revenge for the cartoons. “Is there someone who will roll up his sleeves and bring back to us the glory of the hero Mohammed Merah?” he asked on an Islamist forum monitored by the US-based SITE intelligence group. He was referring to an al Qaeda-inspired gunman who killed seven people, including three Jewish children, in the southern French city of Toulouse in March.

The Socialist government also faces a dilemma over how to manage the country’s four-million strong Muslim community, which French authorities have struggled to integrate in the past.

Muslims attending prayers at mosques in France on Friday will hear an appeal for calm but community leaders have also pressed the government to do more to restrict the ability of media to publish "insulting" material, arguing that publishing incendiary material that takes aim at religion should be put on a par with hate crimes.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls banned all protests over the video "Innocence of Muslims" following a violent demonstration last weekend near the US embassy in Paris and has made it clear he will not sanction any mass protests over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons either. 

Charlie Hebdo under police protection

The government has been forced to deploy riot police to protect Charlie Hebdo's offices, which were fire-bombed last year following the publication of an edition it said had been "guest edited" by the Prophet Mohammed that they dubbed "Sharia Hebdo". Muslims believe the prophet should not be depicted at all – even in a flattering way – because it might encourage idolatry.

The left-wing, libertarian weekly's editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, has also been assigned police body guards, but he is unrepentant about the furore he has caused and has dismissed suggestions that his timing could have been better.

"The global circumstances will never be favourable to having a laugh at the expense of radical Islam or religion in general," he said. "If we take circumstances into account, we will not be able to talk about anything anymore – the satirical press is doomed. We're screwed."

Ministers have criticised the timing of Charlie Hebdo's decision to publish the cartoons, but have made it clear they support the paper's right to express its opinions however it sees fit and no matter how much offence it causes.

Hélène Conway-Mouret, minister for French nationals abroad, told FRANCE 24 on Thursday that Charlie Hebdo had perhaps “decided to test how far they could go” concerning the limits of freedom of speech, but that the paper’s editors “probably didn’t envisage the impact [their actions] could actually have on French citizens abroad, possibly putting their lives in danger”.

Thousands of extra copies hit newsstands on Thursday after the weekly's usual print run of 75,000 copies sold out within hours on Wednesday.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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