French citizens advised to leave Pakistan as protests worsen


French nationals and companies in Pakistan have been advised by their embassy to leave temporarily after violent anti-France protests brought large parts of the country to a standstill.

Anti-French sentiment has been simmering for months in Pakistan since Emmanuel Macron expressed support for a satirical magazine’s right to republish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

The Pakistan government on Thursday banned an extremist political party whose leader had called for a march on the capital to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Saad Rizvi, leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was detained on Tuesday, hours after threatening mass protests bringing thousands of his supporters on to the streets in cities across the country. Two police officers died in clashes with demonstrators.

“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 an email to French citizens. “The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines.”

Extra security personnel were deployed to the French embassy inside a guarded diplomatic enclave closed to the public and shipping containers were placed as fortifications around its outer wall.

“Our police and rangers are capable of handling the situation,” the interior minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told a press conference. “All the French citizens are safe here and there’s no threat to them.”

But Ludo Van Vooren, a French citizen living in Islamabad, said he would be assessing the embassy’s advice. “We are a little shocked and reflecting on what to do,” he said. “Following the incidents of the last few months, we haven’t been panicking, but we are very vigilant. Now we are trying to work out if things have changed.”

Last year, some 445 French citizens and more than 30 companies were registered in Pakistan, according to a French government website.

The TLP has in the past held days-long, violent road protests over blasphemy issues, causing major disruption.

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty for insulting Islam or Islamic figures.

Successive governments have avoided confrontation with hardline Islamist groups, fearing that a crackdown on religious parties could spark wider violence.

“We are in favour of protecting the prophet’s honour, but the demand which they are seeking could have portrayed Pakistan as a radical nation worldwide,” Ahmed told a news conference on Wednesday.

On Twitter, the hashtag #FranceLeavePakistan was trending with more than 55,000 tweets as of Thursday afternoon.

Anger erupted in Autumn last year when the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Macron’s subsequent defence of free speech triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands of people in Pakistan, Iran and other Muslim countries flooding the streets and organising anti-French boycotts.

At the time, Pakistan’s populist prime minister, Imran Khan, who has been known to play to the country’s hardline religious base, blasted Charlie Hebdo for re-publishing the cartoons, saying “wilful provocations” should be “universally outlawed”.

He accused Macron of attacking the Muslim faith and urged Islamic countries to work together to counter what he called growing repression in Europe.

Weeks later a Pakistani man attacked the former offices of the magazine in Paris, wounding two people.