France in a fluster over Tunisian crisis

Tunisians protest on the streets of Paris. 15 Jan 2011
Image caption Many Tunisians living in France have been showing solidarity with the protesters

As the former colonial power, France has deep economic, personal and historical ties to Tunisia - interests it is keen to protect.

But Paris's muted response to the protests and repression in its former North African protectorate has raised eyebrows and drawn criticism, both inside and outside of France.

During the month of demonstrations that led to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's fall, France simply called for "calm".

Prime Minister Francois Fillon criticised only the "disproportionate use of force" by Tunisian forces and on Tuesday last week, Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie even offered to send French riot police to help "restore order".

On Sunday the foreign minister was working hard to recover the situation.

"The constant principles of our foreign policy are non-interference, support for democracy and freedom and the implementation of the rule of law," she said.

"In the case of a former protectorate we are even more bound to display a certain degree of reserve. We don't want to fan the flames but, on the contrary, to help a friendly people as much as we can, without interfering."

Confusion laid bare

Diplomatically, France was in a difficult position. On the one hand, it was keen to avoid a storm of anger that would have followed Mr Ben Ali's arrival in Paris. On the other, it was keen not to offend the other North African leaders with whom France has such a complicated relationship.

Perhaps that confusion was laid bare on Friday evening in the sequence of official and unofficial communiques from the Elysee Palace.

First the cautious advisory that "no information had been received" as to Mr Ben Ali's final destination, then a much more decisive statement that in fact he was not welcome.

According to the newspaper Le Monde, the directorate general of civil aviation had already identified an aircraft with the flight plan Tunis-Paris. It is said the French authorities demanded that the plane land in Sardinia. It emerged later that the plane was not carrying any passengers and certainly not President Ben Ali, who was by that time landing in Saudi Arabia.

And yet to the embarrassment of the French authorities some of the president's relatives had already arrived in Paris, holed up in a luxury hotel at Euro Disney. On Saturday it was made explicitly clear they were not welcome - and they left for the Middle East.

With some 22,000 French citizens in Tunisia and perhaps 700,000 Tunisians living in France, the Elysee Palace is being particularly careful about what it says and does. About 5,000 Tunisians marched in Paris on Saturday. They are watching the government's response closely.

'Fled with gold'

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has reassured them that any assets in French banks linked to Tunisia are under surveillance.

Tracfin, a financial organisation that tracks suspicious movements of capital, said it was being "particularly vigilant" to any request for transfers from accounts linked to the deposed president's family.

According to French newspapers, sources within the French security services suspect Leila Trabelsi, the president's wife, went to the Bank of Tunisia on Friday looking for gold bars.

Image caption President Nicolas Sarkozy, pictured with Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2008, has called for elections in Tunisia

When the governor refused to part with the bullion, it is said the president made the call himself. It is suspected - though not confirmed - they might have escaped with 1.5 tonnes of gold, worth around 45m euros (£37.6m).

It is also suggested in the papers that Mr Ben Ali had recorded a new speech which he did not have time to deliver.

He fled when it became clear he had lost the support of the chief of staff and the army, who by that time were refusing orders to fire on the protesters.

President Nicolas Sarkozy - pictured in a close conversation with Mr Ben Ali in the morning newspapers - says France is keen to see free and fair elections.

"France is prepared to meet any request for help to ensure the democratic process takes place in an indisputable fashion."

But many remain sceptical. They draw attention to the lavish lifestyles that French officials, ambassadors and businessmen - many with vacation properties in Tunisia and Morocco - have enjoyed at the invitation of North African rulers.

Francois Hollande, a leading member of the opposition Socialist Party, captures the mood perfectly.

"For weeks the French position has seemed to be one of embarrassment, of caution, of prudence, while in Tunisia and across North Africa people expected us to speak out," he said.

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