Europe

Tunisian crisis 'took France by surprise' - minister

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie in the French parliament, 11 January
Image caption Ms Alliot-Marie said her words had been distorted

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has defended her handling of the Tunisian crisis, saying France had been surprised by events.

"France had not seen these events coming any more than anyone else," she told MPs at a hearing on the turmoil in the former French protectorate.

Socialist opposition leader Martine Aubry accused the government earlier of a "deafening silence".

It had failed to condemn the violent repression of protests, she said.

Analysts say Paris has been scrambling to defend its policy in the region.

The government long supported President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as an economic ally and as a perceived bulwark against Islamist militancy, they note.

However, once it became evident he had lost power on Friday, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government appeared to drop him abruptly.

According to unconfirmed reports, Mr Ben Ali's plane was refused permission to land in France when he fled. The deposed leader found refuge in Saudi Arabia.

A month of unrest in Tunisia has left 78 people dead and scores injured.

'Scandalised'

Ms Alliot-Marie said that France had a duty to support democracy while respecting the rule of law and refraining from meddling in the affairs of another state.

Image caption Riot police have guarded the Saudi embassy in Paris since Riyadh offered Mr Ben Ali asylum

"Be honest, all of us, politicians, diplomats, researchers and journalists, were surprised by the Jasmine Revolution," she told the National Assembly's foreign affairs committee on Tuesday.

The foreign minister said she had been "scandalised" by French opposition reaction to her suggestion last week that France might help Mr Ben Ali's government restore order.

Her words, she said, had been distorted and she insisted she was "sensitive to the sufferings of the Tunisian people".

Earlier, in an interview on French TV channel France 2, Ms Aubry said: "There has been an absolutely deafening silence from the French government."

She condemned Ms Alliot-Marie for having suggested that France might help the Ben Ali authorities to "restore calm".

"She probably did not mean sending troops but when a people is fighting with extraordinary dignity to restore democracy and France, land of freedoms, steps back, the world cannot understand and the Tunisian people cannot understand," she said.

Tunisia was a French protectorate until 1956.

Christian Bouquet, a North Africa expert and geopolitics professor at the University of Bordeaux III, says the French government relied for years on Mr Ben Ali as a "rampart against Islamic militancy".

But policy towards the Tunisian president "suddenly went into reverse gear" last week, he told Reuters news agency.

"There was without question a brutal realisation of the fact that France's initial position was going to hit a wall," the political scientist said.

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