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French nervous after prophet cartoons

20 September 2012, 11:06

Paris - Tens of thousands of French expatriates in Muslim countries face a nervous weekend amid fears they could be swept up in a rising tide of anger over controversial depictions of Muhammad.

Protests that have left more than 30 people dead in the last week have, until now, largely been targeted at the United States, which has had to carry the can for the California-produced Innocence of Muslims film.

But French ministers fear the focus could shift to Paris's overseas outposts following a satirical weekly's publication of cartoons featuring obscene images of the founder of Islam.

Embassies, consulates, cultural centres and international French schools in around 20 Muslim countries will be closed on foreign ministry orders on Friday for fear of retaliatory violence following weekly prayers.

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.

The shutdown also came into force early in Egypt, where schools were to close for the weekend from Thursday.

Sold out

The moves reflect concern about the volatility of countries still reeling from the aftermath of last year's Arab Spring which has been exacerbated by last week's attack on a US consulate in Libya that left the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other officials dead.

At home meanwhile, France's Socialist government faced a dilemma over how to manage the anger of the country's own four million Muslims in the wake of weekly Charlie Hebdo's publication of the cartoons.

Thousands of extra copies were due to hit newsstands on Thursday after the weekly's usual print run of 75 000 copies sold out in hours.

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

Critics have pointed out that the same freedom of expression does not seem to be extended to French Muslims who want to give vent to their anger over the cartoons.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls banned all protests over the 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 cartoons either.


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 incitement to religious hatred should be put on a par with race hate crimes.

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 "guest-edited" by Muhammad that they dubbed "Sharia Hebdo".

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

"The world context will never be favourable to having a laugh at the expense of radical Islam or religion in general," he said.

"If we take account of context we will not be able to talk about anything any more, the satirical press is doomed. We're screwed."



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