France braces for Mohammed cartoons backlash
France stepped up security and appealed for calm Wednesday after a weekly magazine published cartoons of a naked Prophet Mohammed that risked fanning outrage in the Islamic world.
Security was reinforced at French missions and other institutions in countries feared most at risk of a hostile reaction.
Embassies, consulates, cultural centres and international French schools in around 20 countries will be closed on Friday in case they are targeted in demonstrations following weekly Muslim prayers.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius admitted he feared a backlash in the Muslim world, where tempers are already running high over an anti-Islam film made in California and posted on the Internet.
Police were deployed outside the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine which published the cartoons. The magazine said its Internet site had been hacked and was not accessible.
The left-wing, libertarian publication's offices were firebombed last year after it published an edition "guest-edited by Mohammed" that it called Sharia Hebdo.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged "responsibility" and said anyone offended by the caricatures could sue.
But he and Interior Minister Manuel Valls said freedom of speech, including caricature, was a "fundamental right" backed by the law.
Leaders of the large Muslim community in France said an appeal for calm would be read out in mosques across the country on Friday but also condemned the magazine for publishing "insulting" images.
The weekly carried a total of four cartoons which include images definitely intended to represent Mohammed, as opposed to any other Muslim.
In two of them, the Prophet is shown naked.
One is inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film "Contempt" and features the Mohammed asking the director "You like my buttocks?" -- parroting a line delivered by Brigitte Bardot in the film.
Another shows the founder of Islam crouched on all fours with a star coming out of his behind with the inscription "A Star Is Born."
The film references were supposedly an attempt to satirise the crudely-made short movie "Innocence of Muslims" which has triggered the worldwide protests since it was released on the Internet.
But the explicit, arguably vulgar, nature of the drawings made it inevitable they would cause offence.
Another cartoon depicts a cover of Closer, the magazine which last week created a furore by publishing photographs of Prince William's wife Catherine, topless promising exclusive snaps of "Mrs Mohammed".
The figure shows a man's gap-toothed, bearded head on top of a woman's body with bared breasts.
Ayrault said anyone offended by cartoons could take the matter to the courts but made it clear there would be no action against the weekly.
"We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed, including the freedom to caricature," he said.
"If people really feel offended in their beliefs and think there has been an infringement of the law -- and we are in a state where laws must be totally respected -- they can go to court," Ayrault said.
He also said a request to hold a demonstration in Paris would be refused. France's interior ministry has already banned all protests over the controversial film following a violent demonstration last weekend near the US embassy.
Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, defended the cartoons, slamming critics as "ridiculous clowns."
Charbonnier, a cartoonist, said Ayrault should be "supporting press freedom and the republic rather than allowing himself to be influenced by these ridiculous clowns who are protesting".
Meanwhile the magazine's Facebook page was inundated with messages defending or attacking its action, while news sellers reported that customers were buying up their stocks of the weekly specifically to destroy them.
© 2012 AFP