France has decided to close its embassies, cultural centres and schools in 20 countries on Friday as a precautionary measure against possible protests following the publication of pornographic cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The publication of the cartoons has further fuelled seething passions, initially unleashed by an internet video depicting the Prophet Mohammad among sections of the Muslim community.

France has Europe’s largest number of Muslims, an estimated five million, most of who come from former French colonies in Africa and the Maghreb region comprising Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

Charlie Hebdo, which is anti-clerical in principle, has had several run-ins with religious leaders and institutions including The Vatican and the Greek Orthodox Church. Its tone is often irreverent, even vulgar, and it aims to shock and provoke. Last November, its offices in eastern Paris were ransacked and gutted after the magazine “guest edited” an issue by the Prophet Mohammad following the election of the Islamist Ennahada party in Tunisia. In 2006, the weekly re-published the Mohammad cartoons that had appeared in a Danish paper. Muslim groups in France took the weekly to court and Charlie Hebdo won that legal battle.

This time however, many in France feel the magazine has unnecessarily “added fuel to the fire”. The principle of freedom of expression should not be “undermined”, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a radio interview. “In the present context, given this absurd video that has been aired, strong emotions have been awakened in many Muslim countries. Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” The government’s pleas to Charlie Hebdo not to publish the cartoons were ignored on grounds of freedom of expression.

Dalil Boubakr, the rector of the Paris Mosque described the magazine’s action as “totally uncalled for, provocative and irresponsible”. He, however, asked his compatriots to “take recourse to the law” to settle scores with the weekly. The government has not allowed Muslims to demonstrate in France against an Internet video considered “blasphemous”. Twenty people were arrested following a protest by some 250 Salafist hardliners outside the U.S. Embassy last Saturday. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the government would prohibit a series of protests that had been planned in several French cities for Saturday.

“There is no reason for us to let a conflict that doesn’t concern France come into our country,” Mr. Ayrault told RTL radio. “We are a republic that has no intention of being intimidated by anyone.”

Charlie Hebdo called that statement “shocking”.

“The government needs to be consistent,” he said. “Why should they prohibit these people from expressing themselves? We have the right to express ourselves, they have they right to express themselves, too,” said the magazine’s Editor Stephane Charbonnier.

Publication of pornographic cartoons draws magazine criticism, including from the Foreign Minister.

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