An embarrassed France backpedals from its support of Tunisia's Ben Ali
Before former President Ben Ali fled Tunisia amid the popular uprising, France offered its support to the troubled dictator. Now France is struggling to find new footing with its former colony.
"There is no love; there are only proofs of love,” the French poet Pierre Reverdy once wrote. Now, in the wake of the French diplomatic disaster over its support of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali until moments before he fled the country, France may owe Tunisia "proofs of love."Skip to next paragraph
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So says Moncef Cheikh Rouhou, a prominent Tunisian investment banker and media group owner forced out of the country in 2000 over issues related to censorship and physical threats from the Ben Ali regime, and who is mentioned in Arab expatriate circles as a possible future finance minister in a new government there.
French support of Ben Ali and French silence on the shootings of Tunisians has brought a week of recriminations in Paris. France now admits it was out of touch with Tunisian public opinion, has barred Ben Ali from coming here, and says it is freezing the ousted president’s assets.
But a sense of outrage, guilt, and finger-pointing in Paris remains acute. France is still contemplating a new tack on Tunisia and trying to find its footing.
Mr. Cheikh Rouhou says that France can start by revitalizing a Mediterranean Union in a serious way. The union idea, proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, was a bid to improve French and European Union ties in North Africa. So far, says Cheikh Rouhou, it has mostly been "nonsensical talk."
“Put the head office of the Mediterranean Union in Tunis. Create an EBRD [European Bank of Reconstruction and Development] style agency for North Africa. The EBRD rebuilt Eastern Europe with loans and projects. Is France now ready to have the courage to make this something serious?” ask Cheikh Rouhou.
A new era of France, Tunisia engagement?
As Tunisia tremulously starts toward fair and free elections, and begins work to rewrite its Constitution and end nepotism and mafia-like corruption, it's not too early to think affirmatively, says Cheikh Rouhou, a professor at HEC, the top business graduate school in Paris, and cofounder of the Circle of Arab Economists.
In the wake of a near total French misreading of the democratic aspirations of Tunisian people, one "proof" might be a free-trade agreement that allows Tunisian vegetables to be more available in France, he adds.