PARIS - The cartoons try hard to offend. One glance at them and you can see they do. Images of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden in Islam, but in the French satirical weekly newspaper "Charlie Hebdo" he is not only shown, he is depicted in lewd and deliberately provocative sexual positions.
The French government, fearing that these incendiary sketches will ignite yet more violence in the Arab world, has announced that it will close more than 20 embassies as well as consulates and French schools, and it has put French citizens in Arab countries on alert.
It's easy to understand the sensitivity after what happened last week when an amateur video mocking Mohammed that was made in California surfaced on YouTube. Muslims around the world were inflamed, attacking U.S. embassies and leaving more than two dozen people dead. It is still not clear what if any role the film had in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left the ambassador and three other Americans dead.
What is clear is that Charlie Hebdo is intentionally wading into sensitivities that can easily spin out of control. France has more than 3 million Muslims and a French Muslim group issued a statement expressing "deep concern" about the caricatures and warning that "in a very tense context, it risks exacerbating tensions and provoking reactions."
The 16-page weekly magazine has been hard to find in Paris. A news vendor near the Arc de Triomphe opened his morning deliveries and within seconds all of the copies he had in stock were snapped up.
France's Foreign Minister said this morning he believes in free speech, but he worries that the cartoons are "adding oil to fire." He said the appropriate place to challenge the cartoons is in the French courts.
Muslims here note that on Tuesday the French courts sided with the Duchess of Cambridge in banning further distribution of photos of her sunbathing topless while on a private vacation. They say if those images are illegal, then the offensive cartoons should be, too.
But the editor of "Charlie Hebdo" is unrepentant, saying the images will "shock those who will want to be shocked."
"Freedom of the press, is that a provocation?" he said.
The newspaper has courted controversy before. Last November it called one issue "Sharia Hebdo" and claimed the Prophet Mohammed was its guest editor. The newspaper's offices were firebombed the day of publication.
Today French riot police are stationed in front of the offices of Charlie Hebdo.