The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was accused today of tacitly propping up dictatorship in north Africa and of botched diplomacy in France’s ambivalent response to the tumults in Tunis.
Analysts, EU diplomats and French opposition figures said the Sarkozy administration, following years of close relations with the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, had been caught napping by the “jasmine revolution” despite weeks of protests in the former French colony and the extensive and intimate human, business, and political links between France and Tunisia.
“Overall the French have been agnostic, along the lines of ‘better the dictator you know than the dictator you don’t,'” said an EU official.
“We really have a diplomacy without courage and without dignity. I am ashamed of what I have seen,” said the opposition former cabinet minister Pierre Moscovici.
Three days before the Tunisian dictator fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday, the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, outraged liberals and human rights activists by proposing to dispatch French security forces to Tunis to shore up the unpopular regime.
Since the weekend denouement in Tunis, French leaders have been scrambling to save face and sound tough. Alliot-Marie sought to backtrack yesterday on her offer of security forces, while repeatedly stressing that French policy was one of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states.
This, despite the fact that her predecessor as foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was the architect of a policy of humanitarian intervention to try to prevent violence by despots against rebellious people.
Paris’s record of support for the ousted Tunisian regime is longstanding, predates Sarkozy and has been shared by leading opposition figures.
Following an attack on a French journalist by regime thugs in 2005, the US embassy in Tunis reported on the French government’s response.
“We view this controversy as indicative of the degree to which President [Jacques] Chirac’s ‘stability first’ and tradition of cultivating close relations with ageing Arab world dictators is increasingly out of step with current realities and prevailing media opinion in France,” the cable, released by Wikileaks, reported.
Sarkozy was made an honorary citizen in Tunis in 2008 and praised the Ben Ali government for expanding liberties in Tunisia. His culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, reported by the French media to have had Tunisian citizenship conferred on him by Ben Ali, said last week that Tunisia was being unfairly criticised: “To say that Tunisia is a one-man dictatorship seems to me quite exaggerated.”
Sarkozy’s opposition, too, has a record of praise for the deposed dictator. The IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, tipped to challenge Sarkozy for the French presidency next year, praised Ben Ali’s Tunisia as a model for other emerging countries during a visit to Tunis in 2008.
In recent days the French reluctance to attack Ben Ali has been felt at European level. On Friday, as Ben Ali was preparing to flee, senior EU officials met in Brussels to come up with a policy. Diplomats report that the French, as well as the Spanish and the Portuguese, pressed for caution rather than decisive action. It was only on Saturday, after the ex-president had fled to Saudi Arabia, that French government statements referred to “democracy” in Tunisia as something worth supporting.
Given its colonial history, Paris has tended to take a proprietorial view of politics in the Maghreb and west Africa, but at the same time under Sarkozy has been effecting a withdrawal from longstanding entanglement in the region.
“It’s not for France to be the gendarme of the Mediterranean,” Henri Guiano, Sarkozy’s adviser, told RTL radio.
What critics see as complicity with unsavoury regimes in north Africa is also viewed as a defence against the perils of Islamism in France’s Mediterranean backyard.
Analysts say Sarkozy prefers “benign dictatorship” in north Africa to the potential alternative of hostile and destabilising Islamic regimes, with Algeria representing a nightmare scenario for Paris, already anxious that the jasmine revolution could ripple along the shores to Algiers.
“The government of Ben Ali did bring a form of stability to Tunisia,” said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, co-director of the French Institute of International Relations. “What did you expect the French government to do? They didn’t want to throw oil on the fire.”
Since the weekend, Paris has been performing a volte-face. The government today promised all help in tracing the deposed dictator’s wealth and property in France. The EU today declared events had passed the point of no return, called for free elections and offered to help organise them. Senior EU officials are tomorrow to discuss blacklisting the Ben Ali entourage, freezing assets and imposing an EU travel ban.
French intelligence has also been briefing the Paris media on the iniquities of the Ben Ali regime and the avarice of the ruling family, which reportedly took possession of the Tunisian central bank’s gold bullion before departing.