French President Francois Hollande emphasized the importance of free speech in France Saturday in the wake of violent demonstrations by Muslims in Africa and the Middle East over the most recent cover of the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “There are tensions abroad where people don’t understand our attachment to the freedom of speech,” Hollande said during a visit to the southern city of Tulle, according to Reuters. “We’ve seen the protests, and I would say that in France all beliefs are respected.”
The highly sought latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, which was published by the magazine’s surviving staffers this week, features a weeping cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign under a French-language headline meaning “All Is Forgiven.” The cartoon sparked violent demonstrations that led to deaths in Algeria, Niger and Pakistan Friday, Reuters reported. Cartoons depicting the prophet in previous Charlie Hebdo publications prompted a deadly attack on the magazine’s editorial office in Paris Jan. 7.
Anti-Charlie Hebdo rioters in Niger -- reportedly armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails -- torched at least two churches Saturday and pillaged several French-linked businesses and Christian shops in the capital city of Niamey. French citizens were told to stay indoors by the French embassy in Niamey, according to Agence France-Presse. “Be very cautious, avoid going out,” the embassy reportedly said on its website.
Protests turned deadly in a second city in Niger Friday, when a police officer and three civilians were killed in Zinder. Another 45 people were injured in the demonstrations, which left three churches ravaged and the French cultural center burned to the ground, AFP reported. “The protesters are crying out in local Hausa language: ‘Charlie is Satan -- let hell engulf those supporting Charlie,’” Aboubacar Mamane, a shopkeeper in Zinder, told Voice of America News.
Police in the Pakistani city of Karachi fired tear gas and water at several hundred demonstrators outside the French consulate Friday, AFP reported. Anti-Charlie Hebdo protests also took place in other major Pakistani cities, including Islamabad and Lahore, VOA News said.
Several police in Algeria were injured during a clash with demonstrators in the capital city of Algiers, after hundreds had marched peacefully with signs saying, “I am Muhammad,” according to VOA News.
“We’ve supported these countries in the fight against terrorism,” Reuters quoted Hollande as saying. “I still want to express my solidarity [with them], but at the same time France has principles and values, in particular, freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, peaceful demonstrations took place in the Middle Eastern countries of Jordan and Turkey, as well as in the West African nations of Mali, Mauritania and Senegal.
“Islam is compatible with democracy, and we should refuse any confusion [about this],” Hollande said during a meeting at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris Thursday. He added that France respects the Muslim world, but his country is devoted to freedom and democracy.
“France is a friend, but it is a country that has rules, principles and values. One of them is not negotiable -- freedom and democracy,” he said, according to Reuters.