MIchel Euler, Associated Press
PARIS — France stepped up security at some of its embassies on Wednesday after a satirical Parisian weekly published crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The prime minister said he would block a demonstration by people angry over a movie insulting to Islam as the country plunged into a fierce debate about free speech.
The government defended the right of magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish the cartoons, which played off of the U.S.-produced film "The Innocence of Muslims," and riot police took up positions outside the offices of the magazine, which was firebombed last year after it released an edition that mocked radical Islam.
The amateurish movie, which portrays the prophet as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester, has set off violence in seven countries that has killed at least 28 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning Wednesday urging French people in the Muslim world to exercise "the greatest vigilance," avoiding all public gatherings and "sensitive buildings" such as those representing the West or religious sites.
Government authorities and Muslim leaders urged calm in France, which has western Europe's largest Muslim population.
"This is a disgraceful and hateful, useless and stupid provocation," Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Paris Mosque, told The Associated Press. "We are not like animals of Pavlov to react at each insult."
CFCM, an umbrella group for French Muslims, issued a statement French Muslims to "not cede to provocation and ... express their indignation in peace via legal means."
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said organizers of a demonstration planned for Saturday against "Innocence of Muslims" won't receive police authorization.
"There's no reason for us to let a conflict that doesn't concern France come into our country," Ayrault told French radio RTL.
Paris prosecutors have opened an investigation into an unauthorized protest last Saturday around the U.S. Embassy that drew about 150 people and led to scores of arrests.
The tensions surrounding the film are provoking debate in France about the limits of free speech.
The small-circulation weekly Charlie Hebdo often draws attention for ridiculing sensitivity around the Prophet Muhammad, and an investigation into the firebombing of its offices last year is still open. The magazine's website was down Wednesday for reasons that were unclear.
One of the cartoonists, who goes by the name of Tignous, defended the drawings in an interview Wednesday with the AP at the weekly's offices, on the northeast edge of Paris amid a cluster of housing projects.
"It's just a drawing," he said. "It's not a provocation."
The prime minister said freedom of expression is guaranteed in France, but cautioned that it "should be exercised with responsibility and respect."
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended freedom of expression, but warned that Charlie Hebdo could be throwing "oil on the fire" and said it's up to courts to decide whether the magazine went too far.
"Freedom of expression can be limited by court decisions. If there is a case of overstepping, it's up to individuals or groups to bring it to the courts, which will say whether the law ... was respected," he said after a Cabinet meeting.
Abdallah Zekri, President of the Paris-Based Anti-Islamophobia Observatory, said his group is considering filing a lawsuit but no decision has been made. "People want to create trouble in France," he told AP. "Charlie Hebdo wants to make money on the backs of Muslims."
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