French paper satirizing Islamic law hit by arson

The headquarters of a satirical French newspaper were damaged by fire early Wednesday as a controversial special edition poking fun at Islamic law in Libya and Tunisia was set to hit newsstands.

A fire apparently sparked by one or two Molotov cocktails melted computers, destroyed archives, and burned the first two floors of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper’s offices in Paris about 1 a.m., officials said. No injuries were reported, and authorities said they had no suspects as of Wednesday afternoon.

The special issue, which the paper said was “guest edited” by the prophet Muhammad, covers the recent victory of the Islamist Nahda party in Tunisian elections, as well as the announcement by Libyan leaders that sharia law would form the basis for the nation’s future legislation.

The cover drawing of a bug-eyed character wearing a turban is accompanied by the words “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!”

In the days before publication, chat forums and the media were abuzz with complaints and reports of threats to the newspaper because of the weekly’s choice of content.


Muslim groups condemned the attack Wednesday, while deploring the way Islam and its prophet were depicted.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith said in a statement that it “reaffirms with force its total opposition to all acts and forms of violence.” The council “is profoundly attached to freedom of expression and is always open to respectful dialogue,” it said.

Staff members standing outside the newspaper’s building said they were covering “the new direction” they felt the “Arab Spring” had taken.

“We don’t have an aggressive approach, and we supported the Arab Spring, but we simply always comment on the news,” said Valerie Manteau, a Charlie Hebdo editor. “I understand a lot of people feel insulted, but it’s no reason for violence.... I’m not ashamed of what we did.”

The newspaper typically criticizes every major religion as well as leading political figures. It was sued for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, but won the case in 2008 when a court ruled that it had not publicly abused a group because of its religion.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant, who went to the scene of the fire Wednesday, said such an attack was unacceptable.

“If some think they are able to impose a way of seeing things on the French Republic … they’re mistaken,” he said.

Some residents who had gathered to view the damage stood away from the glare of news cameras and officials and whispered their thoughts about the alleged attack.

“What do they expect?” said Monica, 72, who declined to give her full name. “You have to respect religions.”

Lauter is a special correspondent.