The French government announced plans to close some 20 embassies across the Arab world Friday, as riots broke out outside the Paris offices of a French weekly which published a set of controversial cartoons mocking the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
Riot police were called out to defend the offices of Charlie Hebdo, after the magazine apparently flouted a warning by the French government not to print the cover images, which depicted an Orthodox Jew pushing the prophet in a wheelchair. Further images printed on the inside pages showed caricatures of the prophet naked.
Conflicting reports, however, claimed the government had defended the right of the weekly to publish the cartoons, which sought to satirise recent furore over anti-Islam propaganda.
The controversy comes hot on the heels of last week’s US embassy attacks in Cairo and Libya over a controversial Islamophobic film produced and directed by an US-based Egyptian and Israeli with private US funds, which resulted in the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three consulate staff.
In the wake of violence erupting in seven countries across the Arab world, including Yemen, which has led to the deaths of at least 28 people, French Prime Minister jean-Marc Ayrault issued a public for calm on French RTL radio Wednesday, insisting “there’s no reason for us to let a conflict that doesn’t concern France come into our country”. Whilst stressing the importance of the fundamental right to freedom of expression in France, he warned such rights “should be exercised with responsibility and respect”.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius concurred, adding that it wasn’t “pertinent, intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire”. Speaking of his concern for the safety of French consulate staff he added he had “issued instructions for special security precautions to be taken in all countries where it could be a problem”.
The government also announced it would block plans for a protest on Saturday by pro-Islamic demonstrators in reaction to the cartoons. France is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Whilst Muslims groups expressed “deep concern” at the latest developments, the umbrella group for French Muslims CFCN warned its community “not to cede to provocation...and express their indignation in peace via legal means”.
The Jewish community meanwhile expressed solidarity with its Muslim neighbours, with the president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewry Richard Prasquier slamming the publication of the cartoons as “irresponsible”.
Condemning the riots which have caused fatalities, he added that “it is in consideration of these deaths that we disapprove of the decision taken by Charlie Hebdo”.
Acknowledging that freedom of expression must be tempered with a responsible attitude, he added that “religious criticism must itself accept being criticised: not only in principle but in practice”.
Islamist-governed Egypt, a fierce critic of the film that sparked the riots in its own capital, condemned the French cartoons, with the acting head of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party Essam Erian claiming they “dishonour the Prophet and we condemn any action that defames the sacred according to the people’s beliefs”.
Continuing to reject the legitimacy of violent protests in reaction, he said “we condemn violence and say that peaceful protests are a right for everyone. I hope there will be a popular western and French reaction condemning this”.