The French embassy in Pakistan has advised all French nationals and companies to temporarily leave the country, after violent protests by a far-right party that has accused French President Emmanuel Macron of committing “blasphemy”.
The AFP news agency, based in France, quoted an email sent to French citizens in Pakistan advising them to leave.
“Due to the serious threats to French interests in Pakistan, French nationals and French companies are advised to temporarily leave the country,” the embassy said in the email.
“The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines.”
A French official said that while the embassy in the Pakistani capital Islamabad would remain open, some staff would also be leaving the country.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was aware of the French advice “which appears to be based on their own assessment of the situation”.
“For its part, the government is taking enhanced measures for the maintenance of law and order and preventing any damage to life and property,” said Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, ministry spokesperson.
Anti-France sentiment has been at the centre of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party’s messaging since it held protests last November against comments by Macron that were deemed by many, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, to be “encouraging Islamophobia”.
Those protests were quelled after the TLP reached an agreement with the Pakistani government to put the question of expelling the French ambassador, boycotting all French goods and taking other steps before Parliament.
This week, however, violent protests broke out across the country when the government arrested TLP chief Saad Rizvi in what appeared to be a preemptive move ahead of the expiry of a TLP-issued April 20 deadline for the expulsion of the French envoy.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s government formally banned TLP under anti-terrorism laws, Sheikh Rasheed, the interior minister said.
Rasheed said the government would also move a legal petition to have TLP officially delisted as a political party by the Election Commission, effectively unseating its two provincial lawmakers in the southern province of Sindh.
At least two policemen were killed and hundreds of policemen and protesters were wounded in clashes at the nationwide demonstrations.
Large rallies were held in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, the eastern city of Lahore, near the capital Islamabad, and elsewhere.
What happened in November?
The November protests followed Macron’s support for the right to republish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad, considered “blasphemous” by many Muslims.
The caricatures in question are also viewed by many as Islamophobic, as they often link the faith to “terrorism”.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where insulting Islam’s prophet, holy book or other religious personages are crimes that can carry the death penalty.