PARIS (Reuters) - 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 newsstands.
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Muslim Council, described both the film and the cartoons as “acts of aggression” but urged French Muslims not to protest in the streets.
“I repeat the council’s call not to protest. Any protest could be hijacked and counterproductive,” he told radio RFI.
An estimated 8,000 Muslims gathered peacefully for Friday prayers at a temporary prayer hall in northern Paris set up in a former fire department depot. So many turned out that hundreds had to pray in the rain in the adjacent parking lot.
“This demonstrates that the vast majority of the Muslim community is not made up of extremists,” said Abderahmane Dahmane, spokesman for the local association that runs the prayer hall, one of the largest in the Paris region.
“The majority will not play the game of the hotheads.”
At prayers in the northeast Paris suburb of La Courneuve, delivery driver Hakim Ardjou, 42, also rejected violence.
“We just want our message to be heard: this sort of insult is a disgrace, but we will keep calm.”
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.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there had been anti-French demonstrations in Afghanistan, Egypt and Indonesia, but there were no incidents against French nationals.
“In a certain number of countries, the measures (closures) will be kept in place as a precaution on Saturday and Sunday,” Fabius told journalists.
Police were on alert in the French capital after protests planned by some Muslim groups were banned.
Charlie Hebdo, an anti-establishment weekly whose Paris offices are under police protection, defied critics to rush out another run of the publication that sold out on Wednesday.
It says the cartoons are designed simply to poke fun at the uproar over the film and on Friday hit back at critics accusing it of deliberately stirring controversy to sell newspapers.
“If Charlie Hebdo wanted to make a quick buck, it would not produce Charlie Hebdo,” it said on its Twitter feed.
The publication has a print run of around 70,000 but its Mohammad cartoons have made front-page news in a country which has both the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe - an estimated five million Muslims and 600,000 Jews.
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.
Additional reporting by John Irish, writing by Mark John; Editing by Diana Abdallah