Criticism-hit France sends aid to Libya opposition

A man burns a picture of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during a demonstration near the Libyan consulate in Paris on 25 February 2011 France has come under fire for its apparent links to authoritarian leaders

France is to send two planes of aid to opposition territory in Libya, Prime Minister Francois Fillon has said.

The announcement came hours after Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie quit amid controversy over her contacts with the former Tunisian regime.

Her decision to stand down was "political not moral", Mr Fillon said.

Paris has been stung by accusations that it was too cosy with the authoritarian regimes overthrown in recent weeks, say analysts.

Ms Alliot-Marie was heavily criticised for initially offering French help to quell the uprising in Tunisia.

Subsequent revelations about her and her family's links to the regime of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and the fact that she had taken a Christmas holiday in Tunisia during the uprising made her position increasingly untenable.

'Massive operation'

"In a few hours two French planes will leave for Benghazi on behalf of the French government with doctors, nurses, medical equipment and medicine," Prime Minister Fillon said in an interview with France's RTL radio - referring to the eastern Libyan town that has been at the centre of the Libyan uprising and is now in opposition hands.

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Europe's moment to act decisively in this crisis in its backyard has arrived”

End Quote Gavin Hewitt BBC Europe editor

"This will be the start of a massive humanitarian aid operation to the populations of liberated areas," he declared.

He said France had not ruled out backing a Nato-enforced "no-fly zone" over Libya - one way it has been suggested that foreign governments could help defend Libyan rebels against the remaining air power of Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Mr Fillon insisted Ms Alliot-Marie had done nothing wrong.

"She was not at fault," Mr Fillon said.

"This was not a moral decision, but a political one.

"The voice of France was no longer audible, because Michele Alliot-Marie had become the object of an unjust campaign."

Ms Alliot-Marie had defended her conduct in her resignation letter to President Nicolas Sarkozy, a copy of which was seen by the AFP news agency, saying she had been "the target of political attacks".

She will be replaced by Defence Minister Alain Juppe, 65, who previously served as foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s. In 2004, he was convicted of mishandling public funds.

Mr Juppe will be replaced by Gerard Longuet, leader of Mr Sarkozy's UMP party in the Senate and the president's long-time collaborator.

Mr Sarkozy's chief of staff, Claude Gueant, will become interior minister in place of controversy-hit Brice Hortefeux.

Mr Gueant will be in charge of restoring the government's reputation as tough on crime with a view to his Mr Sarkozy's expected 2012 re-election bid, observers say.

Collateral damage

Ms Alliot-Marie's political career has become collateral damage from the wave of popular protest movements across the Arab world, says the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris.

Michele Alliot-Marie in Brussels in  January 2011 Former French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie holidayed in Tunisia during the uprising

Back at the end of December, as the pro-democracy uprising in Tunisia got under way, but before its significance was apparent, Ms Alliot-Marie visited the country on holiday, and, it emerged later, twice flew on a private jet belonging to businessman Aziz Miled.

It also transpired that on the same trip, her parents signed a property deal with Mr Miled, a man with close links to the former Tunisian leader.

Then in a series of ill-advised semi-denials and retractions about the affair, she only managed to make a bad situation worse, our correspondent adds.

Mr Sarkozy was gravely embarrassed by the affair, which came to symbolise in some eyes an unhealthy personal proximity between French politicians and autocratic leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere, he adds.

By sending aid to rebels in Libya, Paris now appears to be taking steps to ensure it is seen as supporting democratic change in the region, say analysts.

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