Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons: a headache for Hollande?

The French newspaper's publication of new cartoons of the prophet Muhammad could shake French President François Hollande's standing, both domestically and abroad.

MIchel Euler/AP
Publishing director of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo, Charb, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris, Wednesday, Sept. 19. Police took up positions outside the Paris offices of the satirical French weekly that published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Wednesday that ridicule the film and the furor surrounding it.

France is once again embroiled in controversy over freedom of speech and religion, after satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo today published raunchy cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons' publication – amid spreading Muslim protests around the world against anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" – could shake the standing of French President François Hollande among Muslims domestically and abroad. 

Some of the cartoons use strong language and feature a naked prophet Muhammad lying in provocative positions. Stéphane Charbonnier, the top editor of Charlie Hebdo, justified the cartoons in a short text on page two of the newspaper by writing that there should be no limits when it comes to freedom of speech.

“There is nothing to negotiate with fascists,” Mr. Charbonnier wrote, referring to those who oppose the drawings. Charlie Hebdo had its offices set on fire in Nov. 2011 after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its front page.

Charlie Hebdo’s website was shut down by a cyber attack Wednesday, the newspaper said on a blog it uses as a backup site, adding that virtually all its print issues had already been sold. Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday afternoon that a complaint had been filed against Charlie Hebdo by a group calling itself Syrian Association For Freedom.

French politicians of both the left and right wings insisted that freedom of the press should not be infringed, although many said the timing of the cartoons’ publication wasn’t wise, given the already high religious tensions worldwide.

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had increased safety measures in its diplomatic offices abroad following the release of the cartoons and that embassies, consulates, cultural centers, and schools in two dozen countries would be closed Friday, the day of prayer in Muslim countries.

The situation in France was also tense after about 200 people, mostly Muslim fundamentalists, held an unauthorized demonstration near the US embassy in Paris on Sept. 15 to protest against the movie “Innocence of Muslims” that ridicules the prophet Muhammad.

'Moment of truth'

Malek Chebel, a religion anthropologist and expert on Islam, says the cartoons could damage President Hollande’s image in Muslim countries, because protesters there don’t make a distinction between Hollande’s views and those of a French private newspaper.

“He had a fairly positive image until now,” says Mr. Chebel, who is a commentator and translator of the Quran. “And now with this one case, it’s the moment of truth.… He is going to be judged by [public] opinions now.”

Hollande also appears to be popular among the French Muslim community who usually leans to the left. A May 6 survey by French pollster OpinionWay found that 93 percent of Muslims who voted in the second round of the French presidential election chose Hollande over then-incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist and professor at France’s School of High Studies in Social Sciences, says tensions between freedom of speech and freedom of religion are more acute in France than other European countries due to its history of secularism. The tensions involving Islam and French society nowadays are the same that involved Catholicism over a century ago, according to Mr. Khosrokhavar, who has done research on Muslim issues in France.

“There is a French specificity first because there is a history of struggle against the Catholic church,” Khosrokhavar says. “Now the Catholic church is tamed, if I can put it that way, and it transfers onto Islam.”

Calls for restraint

The office of French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault issued a statement yesterday calling for restraint after it became known that Charlie Hebdo would publish a series of cartoons the morning after.

The statement cited the need to respect freedom of speech and religious beliefs but sounded like a rebuke of the newspaper’s move. “[The] Prime Minister wants to express his disapproval of all excess,” the statement read. “He calls for the sense of responsibility of everybody.”

Mr. Ayrault also told RTL radio this morning that the government will ban another protest against the anti-Islam movie scheduled for Sept. 22.

“There is no reason for us to allow conflicts into our country that don’t regard France,” Ayrault said. “We are in a republic that has no intention at all of being intimidated by anybody about its values.”

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