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French President Pushes for New Mediterranean Union During North Africa Visit


French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in Tunisia on his first trip outside Europe since his election. Sarkozy met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. One of his main objectives is to try to sell the idea of a new partnership between countries that border the Mediterranean. Anita Elash reports for VOA from Paris.

Nicolas Sarkozy talked about a Mediterranean Union during his election campaign, but almost no one understood how serious he was until the night he won the French presidency. In his victory speech, he made it clear the initiative would be one of his priorities.

He told supporters gathered at the Place de la Concorde in Paris that everything will play out in the Meditrerranean. He said France wanted to build a union that would help Mediterranean countries achieve peace and prosperity in the same way the European Union helped Europe unite after the Second World War.

Mr. Sarkozy still has not spelled out exactly what he has in mind. What is clear though, is that the union would include all the countries that border on the Mediterranean, including Turkey, Israel, and Egypt, as well as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

Presidential spokesman, David Martinon, said last week that Mr. Sarkozy wants the union to cooperate on questions of security, economic development, energy, and immigration. How that would work is up for negotiation, Martinon said.

Analysts say that in theory, such a union would benefit everyone involved. ''I think it is a good idea, because when he says somewhere that the future is in the south for Europe, I think he is right. So I think it is a very good idea.,' said Jean-Paul Chagnolleau is editor-in-chief of the magazine Confluences Mediterranee.

Chagnolleau says the project is partly designed to help France and other European countries bordering the Mediterranean solve problems of illegal immigration from the Magreb. But he says there could be economic benefits on both sides of the sea, especially if a union could facilitate European investment on the southern side.

France would like to secure energy sources in the region, and Mr. Sarkozy may offer to help Algeria develop nuclear power facilities.

But there are also significant hurdles. Dorothy Schmid is an Mediterranean expert at the French Institute of International Relations. "The idea would be quite a good idea if you stick to a very idealistic point of view. The problem is always the feasibility of any political design in the Mediterranean context because it is a region that is clearly full of conflicts," he said.

Schmid says it would be impossible to form a successful union that includes the entire Mediterranean region as long as Israel and the Palestinians are at war. There are also ongoing border conflicts between Algeria and Morocco, and Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey has rejected the idea, because it fears that Mr. Sarkozy wants to use it to keep Turkey out of the European Union. Relations between France and Algeria are also tense, and Chagnolleau says it is unlikely Algeria would easily agree to join a new Mediterranean group.

But there is some hope that Mr. Sarkozy's idea could eventually succeed. Schmid says that because France has long-standing ties in countries surrounding the Mediterranean, it could be the only country capable of bringing new solutions to the region's problems.