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.
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France, which is Tunisia's most important relation in Europe, maintains deep ties in its former colony. More than 1,200 French companies are there and it's a top destination for French tourists. Some 22,000 French citizens live in Tunisia and 600,000 Tunisians reside in France. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, was born in Tunisia and keeps a house there. A bevy of senior French officials, including French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand, vacations on its famous coasts.Skip to next paragraph
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Before Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14, French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie made statements about “the savoir-faire, recognized throughout the world, of [French] security forces able to settle security situations of this type.” This week, Socialist parliamentarians called for her resignation. (A cargo cache of riot gear for the Tunisian dictator was halted at Charles de Gaulle airport last Friday.)
Mr. Sarkozy had thwarted talk of despotism in Tunisia, saying Ben Ali was developing “openness and tolerance.” Mr. Mitterrand said that to describe the former Tunisian president as a dictator was “completely exaggerated.”
Stepping back from Ben Ali
In the wake of the uprising, however, France is revising its acceptance of Ben Ali, who promoted a picture of an Arab state that was open and free but that cracked down on Islamists to keep the state safe and remain a haven of commerce and tourism.
“Ben Ali was able to work the notion with the West that, for Tunisia, it is either me or Osama bin Laden,” says one analyst. “It was a false choice, but people bought it.”
Cheikh Rouhou worries that a postrevolution discourse in France will be dominated by depictions of “Arabs, Muslims, Islam, ethnic differences."
The weekly Canard Enchaine in Paris this week reported on apparent conversations in the French Palace, in which Sarkozy expressed concern over an Islamist domino effect after the Tunisia uprising and whether the revolt would lead to a flood of immigrants to French shores.
But Cheikh Rouhou says that view of the uprising and its aftermath is flawed. "This was a citizens' revolution, the first in which the people, not the military, got rid of the regime. It was young people using the Internet and social media. Already there is an opening to the new view taken in Washington by the Obama administration, which appears ready to correct past mistakes, and is looked upon favorably in Tunis after statements by [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and Obama last week.”
He adds that the revolution can be an opportunity for France: “France needs more workers but doesn’t want them immigrating from Tunisia? OK, create programs of work and trade between the two. Many younger Tunisians are educated. There needs to be a way to make them useful. Find that way.”