France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism, announcing Wednesday that 54 people had been arrested for those offenses since terror attacks left 20 dead in Paris last week, including three gunmen.
The order came as Charlie Hebdo’s defiant new issue sold out before dawn around Paris, with scuffles at kiosks over dwindling copies of the satirical newspaper that fronted the Prophet Muhammad anew on its cover.
France has been tightening security and searching for accomplices since the terror attacks began, but none of the 54 people have been linked to the attacks. That’s raising questions about whether President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government is impinging on the very freedom of speech that it so vigorously defends when it comes to Charlie Hebdo.
Among those detained was Dieudonne, a controversial, popular comic with repeated convictions for racism and anti-Semitism.
Like many European countries, France has strong laws against hate speech and especially anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. In a message distributed to all French prosecutors and judges, the Justice Ministry laid out the legal basis for rounding up those who defend the Paris terror attacks as well as those responsible for racist or anti-Semitic words or acts. The order did not mention Islam.
A top leader of Yemen’s al-Qaida branch claimed responsibility Wednesday for the Charlie Hebdo attack, saying in a video the massacre came in “vengeance for the prophet.” The newspaper had received repeated threats previously for posting caricatures of Muhammad.
The core of the irreverent newspaper’s staff perished a week ago when gunmen stormed its offices, killing 12 people and igniting three days of bloodshed around Paris. The attacks ended Friday when security forces killed all three gunmen.
Working out of borrowed offices, Charlie Hebdo employees who survived the massacre put out the issue that appeared Wednesday with a print run of 3 million - more than 50 times the paper’s usual circulation. Another run was being planned, one columnist said.
French police say as many as six members of a terrorist cell that carried out the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket may still be at large, including a man seen driving a car registered to the widow of one of the now-dead gunmen. The country has deployed 10,000 troops to protect sensitive sites, including Jewish schools and synagogues, mosques and travel hubs.
The Justice Ministry said the 54 people included four minors and several had already been convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing. Inciting terrorism can bring a 5-year prison term - or up to 7 years for inciting terrorism online.
In its message to prosecutors and judges, the ministry said it was issuing the order to protect freedom of expression from comments that could incite violence or hatred. It said no one should be allowed to use their religion to justify hate speech.
It warned authorities to be particularly attentive to any incidents that could lead to urban unrest or violence against police. That suggested the government fears new riots like the wave that swept through France’s neglected housing projects and immigrant communities a decade ago.
The government is also writing broader new laws on phone-tapping and other intelligence designed to fight terrorism, spokesman Stephane Le Foll said Wednesday.
In addition, the government is launching a deeper project to rethink France’s education system, urban policies and integration model, in an apparent recognition that last week’s attacks exposed deeper problems of inequality in France, especially at its housing projects.
Dieudonne, a comic who popularized an arm gesture that resembles a Nazi salute and who has been convicted repeatedly of racism and anti-Semitism, is no stranger to controversy. His provocative performances were banned last year but he has a core following among France’s disaffected youth.
In the Facebook post in question, which was swiftly deleted, the comic said he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly” - merging the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four hostages at a kosher market Friday, a day after he killed a Paris policewoman.
In a separate post, the comic wrote an open letter to France’s interior minister.
“Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I’m trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie,” he wrote.
In a posthumous video, Coulibaly had claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. Said and Cherif Kouachi, the two brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre, had told survivors they were sent by al-Qaida in Yemen.
In an 11-minute video Wednesday, Nasr al-Ansi, a top commander of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, said Yemen’s al-Qaida branch “chose the target, laid out the plan and financed the operation.”
Solidarity for Charlie Hebdo, although not uniform, was widespread in France and abroad. Defending his caricature of Muhammad on the paper’s latest cover, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Renald Luzier argued that no exceptions should be made when it comes to the freedom of expression.
He said when the weekly was threatened in the past, the reaction was often: “Yes, but you shouldn’t do that (publish cartoons of Muhammad). Yes, but you deserved that.”
“There should be no more ‘Yes, but,” he insisted.
The new issue vanished from kiosks immediately Wednesday. One newsstand near the Champs Elysees opened at 6 a.m. and was sold out in five minutes. Another, near Saint-Lazare, reported fisticuffs among customers. Some newsstand operators said they expected more copies on Thursday.
“Distributing Charlie Hebdo, it warms my heart because we say to ourselves that he is still here, he’s never left,” said Jean-Baptiste Saidi, a van driver delivering copies well before dawn.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was among those getting a copy before they sold out.
“I rediscovered their liberty of tone,” he told France-Inter radio, describing the issue as one of “tender impertinence.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls prominently displayed a copy of the satirical paper as he left a Cabinet meeting Wednesday but his hand carefully covered Muhammad’s face.