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Cartoons Prompt French Closures

September 19th, 2012 World

PARIS—France will close embassies and French schools in 20 countries on Friday, its Foreign Ministry said, amid fears of a backlash after a French magazine published a series of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

France said it would close its embassies as well as French schools in 20 countries on Friday, amid fears of backlash after a magazine published a series of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Inti Landauro has details on Lunch Break from Paris. Photo: Getty Images.

French authorities said they feared the cartoons published Wednesday in satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo could cause more outrage in the Muslim world, days after a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad helped to fuel violent protests at U.S. and other Western embassies in several Muslim countries.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s publisher, known only as Charb, speaks to journalists, on Wednesday in Paris.

Paris’s move to pre-emptively close its embassies highlights how Western governments are grappling to respond to a wave of protests whose flash points lie largely out of their control.

The French government said that although freedom of speech rules applied in France, the magazine’s publication of the cartoons was ill-timed. “It is dangerous, even irresponsible, when we know the general climate, to pour oil on fire,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris on Wednesday.

French authorities didn’t disclose the list of embassies subject to closure. But government officials said they had decided to close buildings on Friday because it is the main day of prayer for Muslims, suggesting the order would apply mainly to Muslim countries. Ambassadors could choose to keep their embassies closed beyond Friday for security reasons, a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry said.

French interests overseas have so far been spared by recent protests in Muslim countries that began in Egypt and Libya and have since erupted elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia.

In Paris, about 150 protesters were arrested Saturday during what police described as an unauthorized rally near the U.S. Embassy.

Charlie Hebdo defended its decision to publish the prophet cartoons. “If we start to wonder whether we have the right to draw Muhammad or not, or if it is dangerous to do it, we will have to start to wonder whether we can draw Muslims or human beings in the paper,” the weekly magazine’s editor in chief, known only as Charb, told French radio RTL. “Eventually, we won’t be drawing anything, and a bunch of extremists in the world and in France will have won.”

The magazine’s headquarters in Paris were put under heightened police protection, police said.

Charlie Hebdo’s offices were struck by arson last year after the paper published a special issue with Muslim cartoons called “Sharia Hebdo.”

Write to Inti Landauro at inti.landauro@dowjones.com