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Hollande doubles down on free speech in response to protests

"There are tensions abroad where people don't understand our attachment to the freedom of speech,'' Hollande said on Saturday.

French President François Hollande reiterated in remarks on Saturday his support for freedom of speech in light of protests by thousands in Algeria, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, and Pakistan over the caricature of Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The prophet was depicted on the cover of the most recent issue of Charlie Hebdo, the first edition published since the deadly shooting that targeted the satirical weekly's offices in Paris and killed 12, many of whom were editorial staff.

"There are tensions abroad where people don't understand our attachment to the freedom of speech,'' Hollande said during a trip to Tulle, France. "We've seen the protests, and I would say that in France all beliefs are respected.'' 

He added, "I still want to express my solidarity [towards them], but at the same time, France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression.''

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The depiction of Muhammad on the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo triggered demonstrations worldwide and resulted in the death of four people and injuries to 45 others in Zinder, Niger, according to Le Figaro and Le Monde. Christian churches and homes in the former French colony were also burned and looted. 

Protests continued in Niger on Saturday in the country's capital, Niamey, resulting in material damage, including to a religious site. France "condemns the violence" in Niamey and Zinder and "maintains its solidarity" with Niger's authorities, the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

France is recovering from a series of terrorist attacks spurred by Charlie Hebdo's satirical treatment of religion, particularly Islam, and its cartoons of Muhammad. Some interpret the Quran as prohibiting visual depictions of the prophet. 

On Jan 7., Säid Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi stormed the publication's offices and opened fire on an editorial meeting, killing eight journalists, an economist, a security officer, and later a police officer. The masked gunmen were heard shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," during the attack and later one gunmen was reported saying: “Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo.” Two days later, the Kouachi brothers were killed by police in the French countryside, and one accomplice was killed after holding customers hostage in a Parisian kosher supermarket. Four hostages were killed in the Paris grocery store attack.

In the wake of the brutal murders, France and countries around the world united to support freedom of the press. A unity rally held in Paris on Jan. 11 drew millions, including dozens of world leaders, and demand for the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo has skyrocketed. The paper typically prints 60,000 copies but has met the demand for 7 million with the new edition. The depiction of the prophet Muhammad on the cover has triggered a backlash that has grown beyond France, and is sweeping North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. 

Violence also ensued after about 50 protesters peacefully demonstrated outside the French Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. Three people were injured.