PARIS — French President Francois Hollande reached out to France’s nervous religious minorities Thursday, vowing that any acts directed at Jews or Muslims would be “severely punished” but also insisting the country’s democratic traditions cannot be eroded.
The comments by Hollande — the latest in a string of addresses following last week’s terrorist attacks — touched on some of the most sensitive self-examinations for the country in the wake of the bloodshed.
France’s Muslim community, the largest in Europe, fears increasing reprisals from the Islamist-inspired attacks. It also is left grappling over how to reconcile their role in a country that cherishes free expression with dismay over provocative images of Islam — such as caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that appeared to touch off the attacks.
France’s much smaller Jewish community, meanwhile, faces deepening worries about anti-Semitic violence even as some groups in Israel and elsewhere urge French Jews to emigrate.
Muslims are the “first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism, intolerance,” Hollande said in a speech at Paris’s Institute of the Arab World. “French people of the Muslim religion have the same rights, the same duties, as all citizens. They must be protected.”
He went on to warn: “Anti-Muslim acts, like anti-Semitism, should not just be denounced but severely punished.”
But Hollande said his nation’s democratic principles could not be compromised.
“France is a friendly country, but France is a country of rules, of principles, of values, and among those values there is one that is not negotiable, that will never be, and that is liberty, democracy,” he said.
The traumatized French capital received another jolt after a car with four people inside ran straight into a policewoman guarding Hollande’s official residence, the Elysee Palace, late Wednesday. Two people were arrested and two others fled.
It was unclear, however, whether the incident was linked to last week’s deadly assault by Islamist militants, which left a total of 17 people dead. Raids by police on Friday also killed three gunmen.
Some 120,000 police and other forces have fanned across France after last week’s rampage at Charlie Hebdo and later at a kosher supermarket on the city’s eastern edge.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has claimed responsibility for planning and funding the attack on the newspaper. A video released Wednesday by al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula praised the market gunmen, but stopped short of claiming responsibility.
French authorities, however, believe the attacks were linked.
Funerals were held Thursday for two of the 10 staff members killed at Charlie Hebdo amid continued huge demand for the newspaper’s controversial new edition — dubbed the “survivors’ edition” — which features another cover cartoon of Muhammad.
The latest edition became a symbol of freedom of expression as soon as it hit newsstands Wednesday — selling out millions of copies before dawn.
Yet, in a country that mobilized Sunday by the millions in support of the paper’s right to mock, France also found itself facing a mounting debate over the limits of free speech within its borders.
French authorities on Wednesday detained and charged a notorious comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, with “glorifying terrorism” for an ambiguous Facebook post Sunday that, to some, appeared to show support for the gunman who killed four people in a kosher market Friday.
Since last week’s attacks, at least 54 people have faced similar charges — including several underage pranksters and drunken louts who were mouthing off.
Authorities have used a beefed up anti-terrorism law passed last year to expedite their cases and issue harsher jail sentences — with one offender arrested Saturday already receiving a four-year sentence. The Justice Ministry has also issued fresh orders for prosecutors to crack down on “anti-Semitic and racist acts or speech.”
Laurent Léger, an investigative journalist for Charlie Hebdo who survived the attack, said there was no comparing the newspaper to Dieudonné — a 48-year-old French showman of Cameroonian descent who popularized a Nazi-like salute and who jokes about the Holocaust.
“Dieudonné does not know the Charlie spirit,” Léger said. “Charlie never glorified terrorism. Dieudonné is a bit too quick when he claims that his freedom of speech is being hampered. His attitude is just making things worse by continuing the confusion that is destroying this country.”
Yet others disagreed, saying France was in danger of trouncing the very right it is aiming to protect: freedom of expression.
“We can definitely talk about hypocrisy here,” said Adrienne Charmet, campaign coordinator for La Quadrature du Net, a Paris-based Internet rights group. “In the past days, we have seen a lot of people condemned for putting out words, no matter how condemnable those words, and receiving sentences that seem quite exaggerated.”
“French opinion is split in two,” she added. “Some see it as the worst possible response to last week’s attack, because many of those who have said these things were drunk, or teenagers, who did not know the weight of their words. But there is another segment of the population that does agree, because they feel these people are making themselves accomplices to terror. Either way, this crackdown on freedom of speech is a betrayal of last Sunday’s march.”
Charlie Hebdo was undoubtedly the hottest property in town, with lines snaking for blocks Wednesday as Parisians clamored for copies that sold out within minutes. An initial print run of 3 million copies was expanded to 5 million when kiosks across the country ran out.
There was plenty inside the paper to stir controversy. The 16-page edition brims with the sort of irreverent, off-color humor that made Charlie famous — and infamous. No one is spared ridicule.
In one cartoon, two hooded terrorists are pictured in heaven, with one asking the other, “Where are the virgins?”
“They’re with the Charlie staff, loser,” his accomplice replies.
Another pictures a harried and exhausted cartoonist hunched over his desk, with a caption that reads, “Cartooning at Charlie Hebdo, it’s 25 years of work.” The next panel shows hooded gunmen mowing people down with a Kalashnikov, accompanied by the words, “For a terrorist, it’s 25 seconds of work.”
The conclusion: “Terrorism: A job for lazy people.”
Across the Islamic world, leaders and clerics have denounced the paper.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called the cartoons “blasphemous”
“Freedom of speech should not be used to hurt religious sentiments of any community,” Sharif said in a statement. ”Publication of provocative material should be discouraged by the international community.”
Pakistan’s national assembly also passed a resolution Thursday condemning the caricatures. About 100 parliamentarians later marched on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue.
Pope Francis defended Western-style free expression, but said there were limits when it insults or ridicules faith.
While en route to the Philippines, the pontiff referred to his travel organizer, Alberto Gasparri, to make his point.
“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” the pope said, according to the Associated Press. “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
Deane reported from London. Griff Witte and Anthony Faiola in Paris, Tim Craig in Islamabad and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.