Francois Hollande has become embroiled in a humiliating debate after a French press agency withdrew an unflattering photograph it had released of the national president, as he attempted to secure support for strikes against Syria.

The photograph, taken at a school in Denain, northern France, made the president resemble a village idiot or clown, with an expression of "stupefaction" in his eyes, according to news magazine Le Point.

Online news outlet Rue 89 said the photograph, published by Agence-France Presse, made Hollande look simple-minded.

The picture was taken by AFP staff photographer Denis Charlet, and was wired to the agency's subscribers around the world, including most major newspapers and TV networks.

It was one of a series of images showing Hollande sitting at a teacher's desk during a visit to the school to mark the beginning of the academic year.

The other photos were said to depict more gravitas.

But hours later AFP sent out a message saying it had decided to withdraw the photograph due to an "editorial issue". A red cross was superimposed over the picture, which was marked: "Mandatory Kill".

Withdrawn on president's instruction?

Critics accused the agency of self-censorship, saying AFP may have wished to avoid losing Hollande's goodwill, particularly as it depends largely on the French state to stay in business.

Analysts said they feared the photograph had been withdrawn on the orders of the president's office.

However, the adverse publicity served only to increase the profile of the offending item. The picture subsequently went viral on French internet sites.

Philippe Massonnet, AFP's global news director, denied his organisation had come under pressure from the head of state.

"AFP was subjected to no pressure from the summit of the state. This was an editorial decision taken in our Paris news room in all independence after an internal debate.

"The authorities would never ask us that sort of thing. It was decided to kill the picture because we judged afterwards that it brought nothing to the series in terms of news."

However media commentator Jean-Marc Morandini used his blog to denounce what he called "an act of censorship".

Renaud Revel, of L'Express magazine, said AFP's move had backfired.

"AFP has unleashed a storm of mockery on the web, where this photograph is a hit," he said.

The French internet site Slate even launched a tongue-in-cheek competition to find the best caption for the photograph.

AFP insists it is editorially independent but it depends on cash subscriptions to its newswire services by French government bodies, with €114m (£96m) of AFP's total €281m income in 2011 coming from public sector subscriptions.

The row over the photograph erupted as the New York Times also came under fire for self-censorship, after comments from an Israeli lobbying group were airbrushed from later editions.