Nicholas Vinocur and Tom Heneghan, Reuters, September 21, 2012
France banned protests on Friday against cartoons published by a satirical weekly denigrating Islam’s Prophet Mohammad as part of a security clamp-down while prayers took place across the Muslim world.
The country’s Muslim population, drawn largely from ex-colonies in North and West Africa, shrugged off the controversy as imams in mosques denounced the pictures but urged their followers to remain calm.
The drawings have stoked a furore over an anti-Islam film made in California that has provoked sometimes violent protests in several Muslim countries, including attacks on U.S. and other Western embassies, the killing of the U.S. envoy to Libya and a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said prefects had orders to prohibit any protest and to crack down if the ban was challenged.
“There will be strictly no exceptions. Demonstrations will be banned and broken up,” he told a news conference in the southern port city of Marseille.
The main body representing Muslims in France appealed for calm as the weekly Charlie Hebdo put a new print run of the cartoons featuring a naked Prophet Mohammad on the news stands.
French embassies, schools and cultural centres in some 20 Muslim countries were closed on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, in a precaution ordered by the French government.
French media showed footage of an embassy protected by soldiers and barbed wire in former French colony Tunisia, where the Islamist-led government has also banned protests over the cartoons.
President Francois Hollande’s government has sought to balance a cherished tradition of freedom of expression with security concerns, denouncing Charlie Hebdo as irresponsible.
“When you are free, in a country like ours, you always have to measure the impact of your words,” French European Affairs Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
A survey by TNS Sofres for i-Tele news channel showed 58 percent thought freedom of expression was a fundamental right, and that “freedom to caricature” was part of that.
Yet an even higher 71 percent of the roughly 1,000 people interviewed on Thursday approved of the ban on protests against the cartoons. France has a proud tradition of street protest.