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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2006, 07:24 GMT
French magazine sells quickly
By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

Police guard the French headquarters of Charlie Hebdo
Police were put on standby outside Charlie Hebdo headquarters
The copies of French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo were not in the rack as usual, but face down behind the counter.

The newsagent was aware the huge front-page portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad would cause offence to some.

He expected the paper to sell out quickly. Several people had been asking about Charlie Hebdo the day before.

A five-minute walk up the road in an area with a large French north African community, the newsagent said he had already sold two copies, even though it was not yet daylight.

Sure enough, across the country most of the run of 160,000 copies was snapped up by mid-morning. The magazine promised to print thousands more.

'Overly sensitive'

Charlie Hebdo combines anarchic comic-strip cartoons with serious comment. The latest edition has a double-page spread of drawings satirising political correctness.

All religions are depicted in caricature as the captions ask: how can you live normally if you have to worry about offending everyone from Sikhs to Scientologists, Jews to Jehovah's Witnesses?

A French shopkeeper who has sold out of Charlie Hebdo magazine
Charlie Hebdo sold out in many stores within hours
The inference is clear: the Muslim world is being overly sensitive.

Most of the paper is devoted to Islam. Referring to one of the original Danish cartoons, all of which are reprinted, it singles out the one where Muhammad has a bomb in his turban.

This is not a comment on Islam, says the editorial, but on the interpretation of Islam and the Prophet by Muslim terrorists. Not to publish the drawings, it says, would be interpreted by religious fanatics as an encouraging victory.

Many French people love cartoons. They are hooked on their "bandes dessinées" (comics) anyway: try to walk through the comic book department in any bookstore and you have to step carefully over several cross-legged figures on the floor, oblivious to all around them as they devour yet another Asterix annual.

One well-known social commentator laughed out loud when she saw the latest Charlie Hebdo.

"It's a breath of fresh air," she said, adding that it was like going back to the paper's heyday of the 1970s and 80s, before the tyranny of political correctness.

Relief

Nevertheless, the timing of the decision to print the cartoons has been criticised, given the nature of the demonstrations across the Muslim world.

Until now the French government had combined defending freedom of expression with appeals for tolerance and respect. The latest saga has prompted President Jacques Chirac to condemn the "overt provocation" of certain publications, without mentioning Charlie Hebdo by name.

The government must be relieved at the moderate reaction from the country's large Muslim population so far.

The leader of the French Muslim Council, Dalil Boubakeur, appealed for calm.

Several organisations are considering further legal action against the paper after the failed attempt to prevent publication. Feelings may be expressed more forcibly at a demonstration one group is planning to stage in Paris on Saturday.

For the relative silence does not mean that people are not angry. Even some non-practising Muslims, and those who are born and bred in France and perfectly integrated into French society, find the cartoons offensive.

One I know said that attacking Islam in books and magazines had become fashionable, and he predicted further hostility.

Another said there was a fundamental misunderstanding of his religion, adding that it was important for Muslims not to play the same game as those provoking them.


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