The order came as Charlie Hebdo’s defiant new issue sold out before dawn around Paris, with scuffles at kiosks over dwindling copies of the satirical newspaper fronting the Prophet Muhammad.
Like many European countries, France has strong laws against hate speech and especially anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. In a message distributed to all French prosecutors and judges, the Justice Ministry laid out the legal basis for rounding up those who defend the Paris terror attacks as well as those responsible for racist or anti-Semitic words or acts.
Among those detained was Dieudonne, a controversial, popular comic with repeated convictions for racism and anti-Semitism.
The attacks that left 17 people dead are prompting France to tighten security measures but none of the 54 people detained have been linked by authorities to the attacks. That is raising questions about whether the government is impinging on the freedom of speech that Charlie Hebdo so vigorously defends.
The core of the irreverent newspaper’s staff perished a week ago when gunmen stormed its offices, killing 12 people. It was the opening salvo of three days of terror and bloodshed in the Paris region, ending when security forces killed all three gunmen on Friday.
A top leader of Yemen’s al-Qaida branch claimed responsibility Wednesday for the Charlie Hebdo attack, saying in a video the massacre was in “vengeance for the prophet.” Charlie Hebdo had received repeated threats previously for posting caricatures of Muhammad and was firebombed in 2011.
Those who survived last week’s massacre worked out of borrowed offices to put out the issue that appeared Wednesday with a print run of 3 million — more than 50 times the usual circulation. Another run was planned, one columnist said.
The Justice Ministry said 54 people — including four minors — have been detained for defending or verbally threatening terrorism since the Charlie Hebdo attack. Several have already been convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing.
The government is also working on new phone-tapping and other intelligence efforts against terrorism that it wants nailed down by next week, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said Wednesday.
The government is also launching a deeper project to rethink education, urban policies and its integration model, in an apparent recognition that the attacks exposed deeper problems of inequality both in France and especially at its neglected, often violence-ridden suburban housing projects.
French police say as many as six members of a terrorist cell that carried out the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket may still be at large, including a man seen driving a car registered to the widow of one of the gunmen. The country has deployed 10,000 troops to protect sensitive sites, including Jewish schools and synagogues, mosques and travel hubs.
Dieudonne, a comic who popularized an arm gesture that resembles a Nazi salute and who has been convicted repeatedly of racism and anti-Semitism, is no stranger to controversy. His provocative performances were banned last year but he has a core following among many of France’s disaffected young people.
The Facebook post in question, which was swiftly deleted, said he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly” — merging the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who seized a kosher market and killed four hostages, along with a policewoman.
In a separate post Monday afternoon, the day the investigation was opened into Dieudonne, the comic wrote an open letter to France’s interior minister.
“Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I’m trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie,” he wrote.
In a posthumous video, Coulibaly had claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who stormed Charlie Hebdo, had told survivors they were sent by al-Qaida in Yemen.
In an 11-minute video on Wednesday, Nasr al-Ansi, a top commander of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the branch is known, says Yemen’s al-Qaida branch “chose the target, laid out the plan and financed the operation.”
Solidarity for Charlie Hebdo, although not uniform, was widespread in France and abroad. Defending his caricature of Muhammad on the cover, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Renald Luzier, also known as Luz, argued that no exceptions should be made when it comes to freedom of expression.
He said that when Charlie Hebdo drew threats and attacks in the past, the reaction was often: “Yes, but you shouldn’t do that (publish cartoons of Muhammad). Yes, but you deserved that.”
“There should be no more ‘yes, but,” he insisted.
On Wednesday, the new issue vanished from kiosks immediately. Some newsstand operators said they expected more copies to arrive Thursday. One kiosk near the Champs Elysees, open at 6 a.m., was sold out by 6:05. Another, near Saint-Lazare, reported fisticuffs among customers.
“Distributing Charlie Hebdo, it warms my heart because we say to ourselves that he is still here, he’s never left,” said Jean-Baptiste Saidi, a van driver delivering copies well before dawn on Wednesday.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was among those to get a copy before they sold out.
“I rediscovered their liberty of tone,” he told France-Inter radio, describing the issue as one of “tender impertinence.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls prominently displayed a copy of the paper as he left a Cabinet meeting, but his hand carefully covered Muhammad’s face.