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France Braces For Backlash From Muslim Cartoon


France announced today that it will close 20 embassies across the Muslim world on Friday, the Muslim holy day. The reason: security. A French satirical newspaper today published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, this after a massive protest over a derogatory video about Muhammad produced in the U.S. Those demonstrations have been linked to the death of at least 30 people in seven countries including the American ambassador to Libya. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in the Tunisian capital of Tunis and sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: French embassies across North Africa and Asia will close on Friday. The French government ordered the immediate closure of its embassy and schools here in Tunisia because of deadly film-related protests last Friday at the American embassy here. Speaking on the radio this morning in Paris, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo had poured oil on the fire. Fabius said that freedom of expression must be exercised with responsibility.

LAURENT FABIUS: (Through translator) What is the utility of publishing these cartoons right now? The government condemns this act, and I hope reason will prevail.

BEARDSLEY: But events have been anything but reasonable lately and officials in Western and Muslim countries fear a new backlash, and this time France may be a major target along with the U.S. French Muslim and Jewish organizations immediately condemned the publication of the cartoons. The Paris office of the irreverent magazine was firebombed less than a year ago after it invited the Prophet Muhammad to be a guest columnist. But today Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier said he wouldn't be held responsible for any of the violence going on around the world.

STEPHANE CHARBONNIER: (Through translator) I refuse this explanation that we are somehow setting things off. I'm not attacking embassies. Our magazine has been publishing blasphemous material against every creed for the last 20 years. They react when it serves their goals. We're not in control of the extremists' activities.

BEARDSLEY: The crude cartoons in today's Charlie Hebdo edition showed a partially clothed Muhammad in a provocative pose.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: All of Tunis was abuzz with the news of the cartoons, and they were the main fodder for TV and radio talk shows. The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French tourists in the Muslim world to be extremely vigilant and to avoid public gatherings and sensitive religious buildings.

As dusk fell over the Tunisian capital, a unit of commando special forces and some muscular plainclothes cops stood guard outside the closed French embassy. Teenagers and parents with young children strolled the streets. Like most Tunisians, 45-year-old Selim Amri was shocked by the attack on the American embassy and condemned it wholeheartedly. He says true Muslims always treat guests with honor. But Amri doesn't understand the cartoons.

SELIM AMRI: (Through translator) Why do people do such things? Do they want to destabilize countries? They know Muhammad is our prophet and we love him more than life itself.

BEARDSLEY: Is that the meaning of freedom of expression, asks Amri, deliberately hurting other people in their hearts? Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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