The French government said on Wednesday it would close French embassies and schools in some 20 countries on Friday, a holy day in the Muslim world, for fear of reprisals after satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Is it relevant and intelligent in this environment to add fuel to the fire? The answer is no," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Info radio. "I'm very worried ... and when I saw this I immediately issued instructions for special security precautions to be taken in all the countries where it could be a problem."
Issues of the magazine hit newsstands on Wednesday with the front cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing a figure in a wheelchair wearing a turban. There were several caricatures of the Prophet on the inside pages, including some of him naked.
Many Muslims consider any representation of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad offensive.
The wheelchair-bound figure on the front page said "You mustn't mock" under the headline "Intouchables 2," a reference to a popular French movie released last year about a paralyzed rich white man and his black assistant.
In an editorial headlined "Laugh for God's Sake, Dammit," the magazine writes: "If you paint Muhammad as glorious, you die, if you paint him as funny, you die. There is no negotiating with these fascists."
Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo and the man who drew the cartoons, believes the publication is covered by the legal right to freedom of speech. "We publish cartoons about everyone and everything every week. But when it's about the Prophet, it's called a provocation," he said.
Authorities warned that the publication could heighten tensions already inflamed by the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims," which was made in the US and has sparked protests in Muslim countries. Several people have been killed in the unrest, including the US ambassador to Libya.
The film has reignited a debate in Western countries about the limits of free speech.l German authorities are considering forbidding a far-right group from screening the film in public on the grounds that it could disrupt public order.
Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices were firebombed last November after it published a mocking caricature of Muhammad. In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people.
The magazine flew off the shelves at French newsstands on Wednesday. Muslim leaders in France, which has some 2 million Muslims, appealed for calm but criticized Charlie Hebdo.
"This isn't the first time that Charlie Hebdo has published such drawings," said Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of Muslims. "It is scandalous that in the context we have seen in recent days these cartoons should appear. We are for freedom of opinion but this is insulting and an incitement to hatred."