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PARIS — A French satirical magazine on Wednesday published a series of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, setting off a new wave of outrage among Muslims and condemnation from French leaders amid widening unrest over an amateur video that has provoked violence throughout the Islamic world.|
The illustrations, some of which depicted Muhammad naked, hit newsstands across the country on Wednesday and were met with swift rebuke from the government of François Hollande, which had earlier urged the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, not to publish the cartoons, particularly in the current tense environment.
“In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined,” Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, said in a French 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?”
In an interview on France Info radio, Mr. Fabius announced that, as a precaution, France planned to close its embassies in 20 countries on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, which has become an occasion for many to express their anger although “no threats have been made against any institutions.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the closures would affect French consulates, cultural centers and schools as well.
Interest in the cartoons was so intense that the Charlie Hebdo Web site became overloaded with the number of people trying to seek access. A Pakistani technology news outlet, ProPakistani, said a Pakistani hacker group had also said it blocked the site because of its “blasphemous contents” about Muhammad. The violence provoked by the video disparaging the prophet began on Sept. 11 when a mob attacked the American Embassy in Cairo. The unrest quickly spread to Libya, where an attack on an American diplomatic mission in Benghazi claimed the lives of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three staff members.
A large contingent of police was dispatched to guard the offices of Charlie Hebdo in central Paris on Wednesday.
The magazine’s offices were badly damaged by a firebomb last November after it published a spoof issue “guest edited” by Muhammad to salute the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisian elections.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the government would prohibit a series of protests that had been planned in several French cities for Saturday — one week after a group of around 250 people staged a largely nonviolent protest of the American-made amateur film, “Innocence of Muslims” outside the American Embassy here.
“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.”
In a statement, the main body representing Muslims in France, the French Muslim Council, expressed its “’deep concern” over the cartoons and warned that their publication risked “exacerbating tensions and provoking reactions.” The council urged French Muslims to express their grievances “via legal means.”
The magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, said the weekly published the cartoons in defense of freedom of the press, adding that the images "would shock only those who wanted to be shocked."
Known for its sharply ironic and often vulgar tone, Charlie Hebdo has a reputation for being an equal-opportunity provocateur. It has come under fire for provocations against Muslims before, including a decision in 2006 to republish cartoons of Muhammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper.