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French Government Under Pressure Over Tunisia Decisions

  • Lisa Bryant

France's Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie during a joint media conference with her Tunisian counterpart Ahmed Ounis, in Paris, February 4, 2011

France's Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie during a joint media conference with her Tunisian counterpart Ahmed Ounis, in Paris, February 4, 2011

The French government has come under fire for supporting Tunisia's former regime and not embracing anti-government protesters in the Arab world. The criticism has particularly targeted France's foreign minister, with calls for her to leave.

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie is facing demands for her to resign over alleged connections with the regime of former Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. There were reports she used a private plane of a close Ben Ali associate. Alliot-Marie also sparked outrage here and in Tunisia last month when she suggested France could help train Tunisia's hated police force.

Alliot Marie has rejected stepping down. In a television interview Wednesday, she said she was merely accepting a plane ride from a friend and she rejected other criticism against her as unfounded.

A broader controversy

The controversy is only part of a much broader denunciation of French policy toward its former colony. France has long been a looming presence in Tunisia - and not just because of history. France is Tunisia's largest trade partner and hosts a large community of Tunisian expatriates.

Tunisian demonstrators on the streets of Paris and Tunis in January slammed French authorities for its close ties to Ben Ali's authoritarian regime and for not backing the anti-government protests more swiftly. There are now calls for Paris to adopt a more forceful stance when it comes to the protests now roiling Egypt.

Mansouria Mokhefi, head of North African and Middle East programs for the French Institute of International Relations agrees.

Mokhefi described France's reaction to the popular anger against Ben Ali's regime as empty, maladroit, reserved and timid.

Sarkozy defends policy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has defended his government's policy, saying that as a former colonial power France had to be careful not to be perceived as meddling in Tunisia's internal affairs. But he acknowledged Paris had not understood the size and depth of Tunisians anger against their government.

Mr. Sarkozy said a new era was dawning in French-Tunisian relations. He said Paris would lobby the European Union to grant Tunisia a special status, offer help for the country's transition to democracy and work to restore wealth looted by Ben Ali and his associates to Tunisians.

The Sarkozy government is already working to make good on its promises. It has appointed a new ambassador to Tunisia. French prosecutors have opened a probe into real estate assets belonging to Ben Ali in France after activists filed a suit against him. And earlier this week, French authorities announced they had seized a plane belonging to the Ben Ali family near Paris.

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