France tells citizens to leave Pakistan ‘due to serious threats’

Amid violent protests led by an anti-France far-right party, Paris calls on its citizens and French companies to leave temporarily.

A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party hurls stones towards police (not in picture) during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan April 13, 2021 [Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – 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 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, told reporters in Islamabad.

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.

TLP emerged as the fourth largest single party in the aggregated national popular vote for the lower house of parliament in the general election in 2018, although its candidates were all beaten. Two TLP members won provincial seats in Sindh in that election.

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.

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.

Furore over cartoons

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”.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera