Charlie Hebdo
French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo publishing director Charb poses at their offices in Paris (Reuters)

France is to close its embassies in 20 countries as a precaution against possible violent demonstrations over the publication of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed by Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The French foreign ministry said diplomatic missions and schools in Muslim countries will be closed on 21 September as demonstrators are expected to take the streets after the traditional Friday prayers.

Foreign minister Laurent Fabius said he was concerned.

"I have issued instructions [to French missions] to take special precautionary security measures in all the countries where troubles could arise."

In its weekly edition the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed naked, as well as an imam in a wheelchair being pushed by a rabbi.

The publication could trigger fresh outrage in the Muslim world following the violent protests against the anti-Islamic movie Innocence of Muslims. The magazine's website has already been attacked by hackers.

Fabius stressed that France respects freedom of expression, but also criticised Charlie Hebdo's editorial decision to print the cartoons.

"In France freedom of expression is the principle. However, following the release of that foolish and preposterous movie, the situation is tense in many Muslim countries. So I don't think it is intelligent to pour oil on the fire," Fabius said.

Charlie Hebdo's editor, Stephane Charbonnier, a cartoonist who draws under the name Charb, said that the magazine "does caricatures of everyone every week" but when the subject is Mohammed "it's called provocation".

The magazine sold out its 75,000 print-run in a few hours. Another 200,000 copies will be printed.

"We sell the same number of copies when we publish harsh caricatures of the Pope but the media does not sit up and take notice. Only when we have troubles with Muslims does everybody stress out," said Charbonnier.

Charlie Hebdo
French police patrol in front of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris (Reuters)