Dumping Old Friends France Makes Awkward U-Turn on Tunisia Policy

The overthrow of Tunisian President Ben Ali has presented the French government with a dilemma. Paris's previous support for the dictator is now proving embarrassing for President Sarkozy, who has been forced to distance himself from his old ally. Voices calling for a complete change in France's Maghreb policy are growing louder.

She felt misunderstood, she said, explaining that her words had been "distorted." Addressing the French parliament on Tuesday, Michèle Alliot-Marie, the recently appointed French foreign minister, played the role of the innocent victim. She was responding to opposition members of parliament, who had questioned the minister regarding her controversial comments on the situation in Tunisia, where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled  last Friday.

On Tuesday of last week, in the middle of the bloody revolt against Ben Ali's autocratic rule, Alliot-Marie told the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament, that France could "offer the know-how of (its) security forces to help control this type of situation" -- in other words, to strengthen the government of Ben Ali, who has now become a pariah in the international community.

The dubious offer enraged not only her political opponents, but also some of her colleagues in the French cabinet, who distanced themselves from the minister. The Paris newspaper Canard Enchaîné quoted Prime Minister François Fillon as calling the idea "totally crazy." And President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly grumbled that such statements "weakened France's position."

But the real problem was not the foreign minister's peculiar offer of help. Rather, people are now asking searching questions about France's overall foreign policy regarding the Maghreb region and the Middle East, which previously had rarely been criticized in public. While the US early on signaled its support for the protest movement in Tunisia, Paris persisted in its policy of standing by the regime.

Shifting into Reverse

That policy was based on a cynical strategy. According to the traditional thinking in foreign policy circles, it was acceptable to tolerate the rule of Ben Ali because the dictator had proven himself to be a bulwark against terrorism and radical Islamists. Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a member of the French Socialist party and currently head of the International Monetary Fund, once claimed that Tunisia was a "model for many emerging countries." The association of French investors in Africa, CIAN, also praised the country for its "solid economy, coupled with political stability."

France's leadership, it turns out, had entirely misjudged the situation in Tunisia, which gained its independence from France in 1956. Now that Ben Ali is gone, France's entire Northern African policy is under scrutiny. The French reaction to the revolution was marked initially by a guilty conscience, followed by disillusionment. Now French politicians are looking at scenarios for how the previous policy can be revised.

Paris has shifted into "reverse gear," commented Christian Bouquet, a professor of geopolitics at the University of Bordeaux who specializes in African issues. "There was without question a brutal realization of the fact that France's initial position was going to hit a wall," he told the news agency Reuters.

Fears of a Domino Effect

The French government appears to fear a domino effect that would destabilize the entire region. That could involve popular uprisings against the incumbent leaders in the Maghreb countries and their neighbors in the Middle East -- including Syria and Egypt.

But the voices of those politicians who are demanding greater distance from the region's autocratic rulers are growing louder, even within the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement party. Rachida Dati, the former French justice minister and member of the European Parliament whose family comes from North Africa, has called for "a closer relationship with the populations there" and a "rethink of our relations with these countries." France's policy toward the region should no longer be limited to the issues of terrorism and immigration, she said.

But a change of course will not be that simple, as Sarkozy's previous stance demonstrates. The French president had stood by his Tunisian counterpart Ben Ali -- who had denounced the demonstrators as "masked bandits" -- to the bitter end.

In the past, Sarkozy had even hailed the long-serving president as a great democrat. During a visit to the country in 2008, he praised the government, saying "today, the space for freedom is getting wider." He added: "I don't see how I would dare, in this country where I come as a friend, to stand and offer a lesson."

'No Easy Task'

Sarkozy seems to have found it difficult to break his well-established rhetorical habits when talking about Tunisia. Even three days after Ben Ali had fled the country, Sarkozy was still defending the autocrat. "Ben Ali has done good things for his people, especially in terms of the economy and education," the president told leading members of his party, according to the newspaper Le Parisien. Almost in passing he admitted that Ben Ali had "set limits on the freedom of his people." He justified his own misjudgment of the situation by saying that "one can not call for the resignation of the leader in question every time there are social movements in a country."

It is probably asking too much to expect that Sarkozy will publicly renounce his past mistakes. Instead, he sent his personal adviser Henri Guaino to talk to the media. Guaino contritely admitted that France had made "blunders" and said it was possible there had been "awkwardness or misunderstandings."

Commenting on Paris's sudden change in direction, the left-wing Paris newspaper Libération wrote, with an undertone of malicious irony: "Switching from unconditionally backing a dictatorship to supporting a successor democratic movement overnight is no easy task."

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