Pakistan: will the French ambassador be expelled before April 20?

Roland Jacquard (*)

Diplomatic ties between France and Pakistan are probably at an all-time low, with Marc Barety, the French Ambassador in Islamabad faced with serious security threats following a demand by the radical Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan to expel the Ambassador. The Islamist party has refused to retreat on the ultimatum it issued to the Pakistan government, arguing that France had insulted the Prophet and thereby committed blasphemy, a sin that cannot be forgiven. The Tehreek has placed two other demands before the Pakistan government, viz. severing of diplomatic ties with France and boycotting French products.

To further complicate matters, on February 22, the Pakistan President Arif Alvi, while addressing an international audience, including the EU Ambassador to Pakistan, urged the political leadership of France “not to entrench the discriminatory attitudes against Muslims into laws” and cautioned that doing so would lead to serious repercussions in the shape of hatred and conflict. “You [France] need to bring people together and not to stamp a religion in a certain manner to create disharmony and bias”. Alvi’s statement was in connection with the recent anti-separatism bill that was passed in the French National Assembly.

The Pakistan President’s comments witnessed a strong reaction from the French foreign office, which summoned the Pakistan Charge d’Affaires at their embassy in Paris. The Foreign Ministry expressed “surprise and disapproval” over Alvi’s remarks and clarified that the French bill did not include any discriminatory provisions and was guided by the fundamental principles relating to freedom of religion and of conscience.

President Alvi was not the first Pakistani dignitary to comment on the new bill. Earlier, Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari had made a personal attack at French President Emmanuel Macron by taking to Twitter to state “Macron is doing to Muslims what Nazis did to the Jews-Muslim children will get ID numbers (other children won’t) just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow star on their clothing for identification”. Following diplomatic pressure by France, Shireen Mazari deleted the tweet, but the incident did dent bilateral relations.

However, this issue is unlikely the last time that we hear of this issue. Following threats by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan to re-start nationwide protests in Pakistan unless their demand for the expulsion of the French Ambassador was ordered by Imran Khan’s government, the latter bought time by promising to refer this matter to the country’s Parliament before April 20. How the Pakistani parliament deals with this issue will be interesting to watch. In October 2020, the Pakistan National Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution condemning the publication of blasphemous caricatures in France and the “resurgence of Islamophobic acts” in some countries. With the vast majority of the country’s population fast falling into the grips of radical Islamist ideology, once the matter is put to vote in parliament, it will be tough for the elected representatives of this Sunni-dominant country to ignore popular resentment.

Though the outcome of this vote is uncertain, what is definite is a rising hatred towards France among the Pakistani populace, and this sentiment is being further stoked by the radical Islamist groups. Traditionally, France and Pakistan have enjoyed warm bilateral relations that have traversed all facets of cooperation, from art and culture to defence. As a result, this sudden Pakistani animosity has taken French officials by surprise, with some even naively hoping that this is a passing phase.

However, those observing the infiltration of this deep- rooted Islamic radicalism into Pakistani society, encouraged by a State propaganda of the country being the primary guardian of Islam, will not fail to assess the emergence of Pakistan as one of the most active epicenters of Islamic extremism in the world. It would, therefore, be prudent for the French government to review its policies towards Pakistan and refresh its threat assessment from this part of the world.

* Writer and consultant, Chairman of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)