The French embassy in Pakistan on Thursday called on French nationals and companies to temporarily leave the country in the wake of the violent protests by a far-right party that has crippled major parts of the country this week.
The embassy’s email address to its citizens as sighted by AFP new agency read; “Due to the serious threats to French interests in Pakistan, French nationals and French companies are advised to temporarily leave the country.
“The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines.”
Anti-France sentiment has been simmering since President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for a magazine’s right to republish cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed. The comments were deemed by many, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, to be “encouraging Islamophobia” and triggered protests last November by the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party.
The TLP resumed protests earlier this week and the leader of the group, Saad Rizvi, who called for the expulsion of the French ambassador, was detained for hours on Wednesday as thousands of his supporters to the streets in cities across Pakistan.
Initially, the protests were quelled after the Pakistani government agreed to take the TLP’s demands including the expulsion of the French ambassador, boycotting all French goods and taking other steps to the Parliament. April 20 was fixed as the deadline for the expulsion of the French envoy.
But the arrest of the group’s leader has been perceived as a preemptive move ahead of the deadline.
Large rallies were held in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, the eastern city of Lahore, near the capital Islamabad, and elsewhere. TLP supporters brought the capital Islamabad to a standstill at the time.
Two police officers died in the clashes, which saw water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets used to hold back crowds.
Successive governments have a long history of avoiding confrontation with hardline Islamist groups, fearing any crackdown on religious parties could spark wider violence in the deeply conservative Islamic republic.
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.