On Thursday, February 2, 2006, the influential French newspaper Le Monde displayed a front-page cartoon about the international conflagration ignited by published drawings of the Prophet Mohammed.[1] Many Muslims believed the Koran prohibited pictures of the prophet, and in Muslim countries crowds had burned embassies and people had died in violent protests. Le Monde’s cartoon, by famed caricaturist Plantu (Jean Plantureux), tried to capture the nature of the controversy. There was no caption; the headline read: “Islam: les caricatures de la discorde” (Islam: the cartoons of discord).

Le Monde editors had commissioned Plantu to produce the cartoon because they were torn over whether or not to reproduce the original Danish cartoons that had sparked rage across the Islamic world. The Plantu drawing bought the editors time. But pressure was still building on the national newspaper to publish the cartoons at the heart of the controversy. On Wednesday, competitor France Soir had published all 12 cartoons; on Friday, a smaller publication—Liberation—published the two most controversial.

France was a country that prided itself on its secular humanism. Religion was deemed to belong forcefully in the private sphere. At the same time, greater Paris—where Le Monde was headquartered—had a sizeable Muslim population of some 1.7 million.[2] In Europe, debate over the Muslim cartoons had devolved into a stand-off between free speech versus respect for religion. As Le Monde editors gathered on Friday, February 3, for their midday editorial meeting, they asked themselves yet again: should they publish any of the offending cartoons and, if so, which ones?

[1] Le Monde published daily at noon, with the following day’s date. Thus the Thursday paper was dated Friday, February 3.

[2] See: France, for historical reasons, does not track ethnicity. Thus population statistics by religious affiliation or ethnic background are only estimates. The Muslim population in all France is estimated at 6 million of a total 60 million. [numbers differ]