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”.
A French embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the development to Al Jazeera on Thursday.
“I confirm that, due to the situation in Pakistan, we have advised the French citizens and companies to leave the country temporarily,” the official said.
A second French official said that while the embassy in the Pakistani capital Islamabad would remain open, some staff would also be leaving the country.
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, AFP reported.
“The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines.”
Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment regarding Thursday’s developments.
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.
At least two policemen have been 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.
Major intercity highways and roads were closed for much of Monday and Tuesday as the protests and clashes continued. Police fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters in some areas.
On Wednesday, interior minister Sheikh Rasheed said the government had cleared most protests and was moving to ban the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation.
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.
Increasingly, blasphemy allegations have led to violence by mobs or targeted attacks, with at least 78 people killed in such violence since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
In the latest such incident, Taqi Shah, a religious scholar belonging to the minority Shia Muslim sect was axed to death in the town of Jhang in March after being accused of committing “blasphemy”. Source: Al Jazeera