France has urged all its citizens in Pakistan to leave the country temporarily amid violent anti-French protests across the country.
In an email obtained by French news agency AFP, the country’s embassy in Pakistan warned of “serious threats to French interests in Pakistan”. Two police officers died this week in renewed clashes with protesters.
Protests were sparked months ago after a French magazine republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The government of French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the magazine’s right to publish, angering hardliners in Pakistan.
Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are widely regarded as taboo in Islam, and are considered highly offensive by many Muslims. The protests escalated this week after the Pakistani government arrested Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the hardline political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which has called for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
Mr Rizvi’s arrest, and a move by the Pakistani authorities to ban the TLP, brought thousands of the party’s supporters into the streets in Pakistan to protest. Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon at the crowds.
The TLP has previously gathered huge crowds to protest over blasphemy issues. Under Pakistani law those found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad can face the death penalty.
Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the nation was “in favour of protecting the Prophet’s honour” but that the TLP’s demands “could have portrayed Pakistan as a radical nation worldwide”. In the email sent on Thursday, the French embassy in Pakistan said: “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.”
In France, state secularism (laïcité) is central to the country’s national identity. Freedom of expression in schools and other public spaces is part of that, and curbing it to protect the feelings of a particular religion is seen as undermining national unity. The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted in a deadly jihadist attack in Paris in 2015 over its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, also mocks other religions, including Catholicism and Judaism.
Comments by Mr Macron in September in support of the magazine’s right to publish the cartoons triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighbouring Iran and other Muslim countries flooding the streets and organizing anti-French boycotts. The TLP temporarily called off protests in Pakistan in November, claiming that government ministers had agreed to boycott French products.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan criticised Mr Macron, but the government denied it had agreed to a boycott, saying no decision had been made.
The TLP is the political arm of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) movement. Led by Mr Rizvi, it came to prominence for its opposition to the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who killed the governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer in 2011 because he had spoken out against the country’s blasphemy laws.