PARIS -- French embassies and schools abroad were on alert Wednesday after a magazine published cartoons mocking Muslims and the prophet Muhammad in the wake of protests around the globe over a controversial anti-Islam film.
The French Foreign Ministry announced it would close some official buildings and other establishments around the world on Friday, the Muslim prayer day, over fears of a backlash.
Government ministers and religious leaders in Paris called for restraint after the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons. The magazine's offices were firebombed last November after it published an edition entitled Charia Hebdo that was "guest edited" by Muhammad.
There is fear that the magazine will anger Muslims at a time when they are already furious over the amateur anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims," which has sparked protests at and retaliatory attacks on American and other Western embassies.
In a statement, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he wished to stress his "disapproval of all excesses and call on everyone to behave responsibly."
"We are in a country where the freedom of expression is guaranteed, along with the freedom to caricature," he added in a radio talk. "If people really feel their beliefs have been offended and the law has been broken -- we are a state of law where the law must be totally respected; they can go to the courts."
France has Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at between 4 million and 6 million. There have been calls for a national demonstration on Saturday, but Paris authorities have said permission for a protest would not be given.
The front cover of Charlie Hebdo features an Orthodox Jew pushing a turbaned Muhammad in a wheelchair and the headline: "You must not laugh." Inside and on the back page, some of the caricatures were more crude.
Authorities deployed riot police around the magazine's offices Wednesday. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking on radio, said France was taking "specific security measures" in countries where problems were expected. The Foreign Ministry issued new advice to French travelers to exercise the "greatest vigilance" and to avoid public gatherings and "sensitive buildings."
Fabius said the principle of freedom of expression "must not be infringed," but added: "Is it pertinent, is it intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire? The answer is no."
Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, was unrepentant, saying the caricatures would shock "only those who will want to be shocked."
In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten caused an international storm after publishing 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. Muslim protests across the world were linked to more than 100 reported deaths. The Danish Embassy in Pakistan was bombed, and Danish missions in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were set on fire.
-- Kim Willsher
Photo: Police officers stand guard Wednesday in front of the building that houses the headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Credit: Fred Dufour / AFP/Getty Images