The French embassy in Pakistan urged all French citizens and companies to temporarily leave the country after violent anti-France protests paralysed large parts of the country this week.
“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 on Thursday.
“The departures will be carried out by existing commercial airlines.”
Anti-French sentiment has been simmering for months in Pakistan since the government of President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for a magazine’s right to republish cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
However, the Pakistani government has on Wednesday, moved to ban an extremist political party whose leader had called for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
Saad Rizvi, leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was detained hours after making his demands, bringing thousands of his supporters to the streets in cities across Pakistan.
Two police officers died in the clashes, which saw water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets used to hold back crowds.
The TLP are notorious for holding days-long, violent road protests over blasphemy issues, causing major disruption to the country.
But 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.
“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,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told a news conference on Wednesday.
Macron’s comments in September triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighbouring Iran and other Muslim countries flooding the streets and organising anti-French boycotts.
TLP supporters brought the capital Islamabad to a standstill at the time.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.
On Twitter, the hashtag “#FrenchLeavePakistan” was trending with 42,000 tweets as of Thursday afternoon.
Weeks after the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, republished the cartoons, its former offices in Paris were attacked by a Pakistani man who stabbed two people.
At the time, Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the French president of attacking the Muslim faith and urged Islamic countries to work together to counter what he called growing repression in Europe.
In an address to the United Nations, Khan, a populist leader who has been known to play to Pakistan’s hardline religious base, blasted Charlie Hebdo for republishing the cartoons, saying “wilful provocations” should be “universally outlawed”.