Libya and Tunisia prompt France foreign policy changes

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Paris

image captionFrance claims to be leading the way in its reaction to the uprising in Libya

Stung by criticism they were slow to react to the crises in Egypt and Tunisia, the French are moving to regain the initiative in north Africa.

On Sunday night came the widely expected resignation of Foreign Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie, embroiled in weeks of controversy surrounding her handling of the Tunisian crisis.

Now comes a French move to win hearts and minds in the new Libya: the first consignment of humanitarian aid.

The two planes France sent to the eastern city of Benghazi carried doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment to ease the pressure on hospitals in the east of Libya.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon hailed "the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of the liberated territories".

"And you will have seen that France was in the forefront of the decisions taken to sanction Col Gaddafi," he said.

"We were the ones who called on the European Council to adopt a joint position on this matter."

'Limited interests'

It is striking how quickly the Elysee Palace has moved on this latest crisis.

But, in truth, the French relationship with Libya is different to the relationship it has with other countries in north Africa.

French economic interests there are limited, far more limited than those of Italy and the UK, which might explain why Paris was happy calling for sanctions some 24 hours ahead of the rest.

image captionMs Alliot-Marie resigned following criticism of her handling of the Tunisian crisis

Of course there are plenty of other reasons why France is keen to play such a visible role.

At the weekend the beleaguered foreign minister, Michelle Alliot-Marie, finally quit.

It had come to light in the first few days of the Tunisian uprising that she was holidaying in Tunisia and had made two trips during her vacation aboard the private jet of a Tunisian businessman with close ties to the family of the deposed president.

When Ms Alliot-Marie returned to France, rejuvenated from her Christmas break, she stepped forward to offer the expertise of the French security forces to a Tunisian police force that was beating and killing protesters.

It is said that MAM - as she is known - chose to hand in her resignation.

But the evidence points a different way.

Last week she was banished to Brazil to discuss fighter jet sales while Finance Minister Christine Lagarde flew to meet Tunisia's new provisional government.

And for several days before she stepped down Ms Alliot-Marie's cabinet colleagues were briefing against her.

'Damaging polls'

On Sunday night French President Nicolas Sarkozy moved to restore some authority, making a seven-minute televised speech that addressed international affairs in the wake of the "Arab spring".

At no point did he mention the controversy that had surrounded his foreign minister. Instead he cited the "challenge of reorganising his diplomacy and security ministries".

image captionMr Fillon said the decision for Ms Alliot-Marie to leave was a "political" one, rather than a "moral" one

Interestingly, Ms Alliot-Marie's popular partner, Patrick Ollier, kept his post in cabinet - he is in charge of relations with parliament - despite a north African controversy of his own. Mr Ollier has denied using his close relationship with Muammar Gaddafi to secure French arms deals with Libya.

The Prime Minister Francois Fillon told RTL the decision "we took" over Ms Alliot-Marie was not a "moral decision, it was a political decision."

"Her voice was no longer audible… she was the target of a campaign for all kinds of reasons," he added.

In truth, you need look no further for an explanation than last week's damaging opinion polls.

President Sarkozy's approval ratings are rooted below 30%.

His base support is shrinking in the face of a strong challenge from the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen. The controversy surrounding Ms Alliot-Marie was doing him no favours.

The nightmare for Mr Sarkozy is that he will be squeezed out of a second round run-off for the presidency in 2012 because of splits on the right and a strong showing by both the Socialists and the National Front.

But were the events of the past few week entirely the fault of Ms Alliot-Marie, or has she become simply a convenient scapegoat?

'Restoring credibility'

Mr Sarkozy has been criticised for several years over the way his government has run foreign policy.

Critics accuse him of riding roughshod over foreign service chiefs at the Quai d'Orsay while keeping key decisions in the hands of his Chief of Staff Claude Gueant.

Last week an open letter from a group of diplomats, published in the newspaper Le Monde, slammed the "amateurism" and "impulsiveness" of Mr Sarkozy's policy.

Former ambassador Jean-Christophe Rufin criticised the "damage" done to France's image.

"Contrary to the announcements trumpeted for the past three years, Europe is powerless, Africa escapes us, the Mediterranean will not talk to us, China has tamed us and Washington ignores us!" wrote the diplomats.

The letter was seen as a response to Mr Sarkozy's claims that his ambassadors in Arab capitals had failed to foresee the North African unrest.

The anonymous diplomats believe the fault lay closer to home.

In a form of mea culpa, Mr Sarkozy explained that France did not take "full measure of the hopelessness" of the Tunisian people because the two countries have been so intimate.

"When you are so close, when the individual and collective destinies are so thoroughly intertwined, you can't always have the necessary perspective. "

But in private he blamed his ambassador in Tunis, Pierre Menat, and promptly sacked him.

The replacement, Boris Boillon, has proved no more successful. He caused instant offence by calling Tunisian journalists "daft".

They called for his removal and published a photo of him posing in retro-looking swimming trunks.

It is now the more sober Alain Juppe, the former French prime minister, who will be given the job of restoring France's diplomatic credibility as the country's new foreign minister.

He will seek to ensure France takes the right approach to the pro-democracy movement.

And, significantly, Mr Sarkozy is moving Claude Gueant, his wing-man for years and the driver of his foreign policy, to be interior minister - a move seen as a concession to Alain Juppe, who will want to run foreign affairs his way.

Mr Juppe has certainly hit the ground running.

Expect to see more from the French in the coming days. They see an opportunity in this uprising - at the very least a chance to look more incisive.

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