TENS of thousands of French expatriates in Muslim countries are on alert today amid fears they could be a target for Islamic radicals in a rising tide of anger over depictions of Mohammed.Protests that have left more than 30 people dead since September 11 have, until now, largely targeted the US, which has taken the brunt in the outcry over the California-produced Innocence of Muslims film.
The US yesterday made the first public acknowledgment that it was investigating indications al-Qa'ida's North African affiliate was connected with militants involved in last week's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats died in the first attacks linked to the anti-Muslim film.
French ministers fear the focus of the extremists' anger could shift to Paris's overseas outposts following a satirical weekly's publication of cartoons featuring obscene images of the founder of Islam.
Embassies, consulates, cultural centres and international French schools in about 20 Muslim countries will be closed on foreign ministry orders today for fear of retaliatory violence following weekly prayers.
Hundreds of Afghans protested last night for the first time against the French cartoons and staged fresh rallies against the US-made film. About 300 students chanted "death to France, death to America" in a western neighbourhood of the capital Kabul.
The French shutdown came into force early in Egypt, where schools were to close for the weekend from yesterday. In Tunisia, French schools were shut down from Wednesday until next Monday after the ruling Islamists branded the cartoons a "new attack" on their religion.
France's Socialist government faced a dilemma over how to manage the anger of the country's own four million Muslims in the wake of weekly Charlie Hebdo's publication of the cartoons.
Thousands of extra copies were due to hit newsstands overnight after the weekly's usual print run of 75,000 copies sold out in hours.
Ministers have criticised the timing of Charlie Hebdo's publication of the cartoons but made it clear they support the magazine's right to express its opinions. Critics have pointed out that the same freedom of expression does not seem to be extended to French Muslims who want to give vent to their anger over the cartoons.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls banned all protests over the Innocence of Muslims following a violent demonstration last weekend near the US embassy in Paris and has made it clear he will not sanction any mass protests over the cartoons either.
Muslims attending prayers at mosques in France today will hear an appeal for calm but community leaders have also pressed the government to do more to restrict the ability of media to publish "insulting" material, arguing that incitement to religious hatred should be put on a par with race hate crimes.
The government was forced to deploy riot police to protect Charlie Hebdo's offices, which were fire-bombed last year following the publication of an edition "guest-edited" by Mohammed that they dubbed "Sharia Hebdo".
The left-wing, libertarian weekly's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, was assigned police bodyguards, but he was unrepetent.
"The world context will never be favourable to having a laugh at the expense of radical Islam or religion in general," he said. "If we take account of context we will not be able to talk about anything any more, the satirical press is doomed. We're screwed."
The acknowledgment of a possible al-Qa'ida role in the fatal Benghazi attack came at a congressional hearing in which officials were peppered with questions about the adequacy of security at the US consulate in Libya.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that US intelligence officials were examining evidence that operatives for al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb had a series of conversations with members of Ansar al-Sharia, a local militant group sympathetic with al-Qa'ida, on the day violent protests broke out in Cairo and Libya.
Testifying before a Senate committee yesterday, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, said intelligence officials were examining such links.
"We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qa'ida or al-Qa'ida's affiliates, in particular, al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb," he said, calling the assault on the consulate a "terrorist attack".