France to shut embassies over cartoons

France will temporarily close its embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday after a French magazine published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, a move it fears will further inflame tensions after the recent release of an anti-Islam video.

"We have indeed decided as a precautionary measure to close our premises, embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools," a foreign ministry spokesman said of the shut-down on Friday.

On Wednesday, France stepped up security and appealed for calm after satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons.

Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, said he had ordered special security measures "in all the countries where this could pose a problem". Demonstrations in the Islamic world often follow Friday prayers.

Fabius admitted that he was "concerned" by the potential for a backlash to Charlie Hebdo's printing of the series of cartoons, given the background of violent protests that have taken place in the Muslim world over the release of the  anti-Islam video , Innocence of Muslims.

Police were deployed outside the Paris offices of the magazine on Wednesday. The left-wing, libertarian publication's offices were firebombed last year after it published an edition "guest-edited" by Prophet Muhammad that it called Sharia Hebdo.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged "responsibility" and said anyone offended by the caricatures could sue.

French schools and cultural centres in Egypt will close on Thursday as a precautionary measure, the French consulate said.

"Although there has been no specific threat in Egypt, it has been decided as a precaution and as in other countries, to close French schools and cultural centres in Egypt on Thursday September 20," it said in a statement.

Appeal for calm

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 it also condemned the magazine for publishing "insulting" images.

The cover of the magazine shows a Muslim in a wheelchair being pushed by an Orthodox Jew under the title "Intouchables 2", referring to an award-winning French film about a poor black man who helps an aristocratic quadriplegic.The weekly carries a total of four cartoons which include images definitely intended to represent the Prophet, as opposed to any other Muslim. In two of them, the Prophet is shown naked.

But the explict, arguably vulgar, nature of the drawings made it inevitable they would cause offence.

Charlie Hebdo editor told Al Jazeera that its website has crashed after it was hacked.

'Freedom of expression'

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 video following a violent demonstration last weekend near the US embassy.

Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, has defended the cartoons.

"I'm not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo, just like I wouldn't go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe."

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