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.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
Tunisian people living in France burn a picture of their former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a protest in Marseille, Jan. 15.

"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."

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.

IN PICTURES: Tunisia riots

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.

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.

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.”

IN PICTURES: Tunisia riots

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