January 16, 2011
France Seen Wary of Interfering in Tunisia Crisis
PARIS — France, slow to express support for the Tunisian demonstrators who overthrew its longtime ally, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is moving to try to pick up the pieces in a country where Paris has deep economic, personal and historical ties.
France has misread Tunisia for years, not just in recent weeks, said Jacques Lanxade, a retired admiral, former military chief of staff and former ambassador to Tunis in the late 1990s.
“Since 2000, people saw the Tunisian regime closing itself into a semidictatorship, but we did not react,” he said. “We continued public support of this regime because of economic interests, because we thought Ben Ali had a role in fighting Islamists.”
But France did not understand how deeply the economic crisis was changing things, and ignored restrictions on the press, Mr. Lanxade said, adding, “We didn’t take account of Tunisian public opinion and thought Ben Ali would re-establish his position.”
As the former colonial power, France has complicated relations with Tunisia, as with Morocco, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea and many other African nations. In general, French governments have supported political stability to protect French citizens, companies and economic interests, with little public criticism of dictators.
It is a delicate balance for a country that presents itself as the cradle of equality, liberty, human rights and revolution, but that also is trying to reinforce its economic strength in the world.
While France once used its soldiers to support its friends in Africa, that era is mostly over, with Paris now emphasizing that it cannot take the lead in African disputes. Even in Ivory Coast, where the elected president has been prevented from taking power by his defeated predecessor, France has demanded that democracy be respected, but that African countries and the United Nations must solve the problem.
“Our basic principle is noninterference in internal affairs,” said Bernard Valero, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Our priority in Tunisia was to stop the bloodshed. Now, after the change, we will help them build their democracy, and we will help them further on the road to economic development, which started this problem.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy famously visited Tunisia in April 2008, along with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and seven ministers, including Rama Yade, then his junior minister for human rights. Mr. Sarkozy praised its leadership and said “the space for liberty is growing.”
Ms. Yade, who had said she would visit the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, stayed in her hotel room after the authorities suggested that such a visit would be unwelcome.
During the month of demonstrations that led to Mr. Ben Ali’s fall on Friday, France simply called for “calm” and an end to violence. Prime Minister François Fillon criticized only a “disproportionate use of force” by Tunisian forces on Thursday.
Individual ministers had infuriated Tunisians and Tunisian exiles in France with their comments. As late as last Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said Mr. Ben Ali had been judged unfairly and had done many good things for Tunisia.
The new foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, told French legislators last Tuesday that the French police could give better training to Tunisian counterparts to help restore calm because the French were skilled in “security situations of this type.”
She defended herself in an interview published on Sunday, saying that “the abiding principles of our international policy are noninterference, support for democracy and freedom and the application of the rule of law.” As the former colonial power, she said, France is “more obliged to a certain reserve — we don’t want to pour oil on a fire, but to help as far as possible a friendly people, but without interfering.”
With some 22,000 French citizens in Tunisia and perhaps 700,000 Tunisians living in France, Paris must be careful about what it says and does. France has regarded Tunisia as a bulwark against radical Islam. After all, France’s main terrorist threat is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has exploited lawless territories in unstable or weak countries in North Africa.
By contrast, aided by the release of secret memos by WikiLeaks, the United States was seen by Tunisians to have made critical statements about corruption and greed in Tunisia.
Washington also criticized the crackdown on demonstrators, and President Obama scored with protesters on Friday when he praised their “courage and dignity” and called for fair elections.
It was not until Friday night that Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Fillon decided to prevent Mr. Ben Ali from landing in France to seek exile, and only on Saturday that Mr. Sarkozy came out firmly in support of democratic change in Tunisia and quick elections.
On Saturday, in a statement, Mr. Sarkozy said that “France is prepared to meet any request for help to ensure the democratic process takes place in indisputable fashion” and that France would block “suspicious financial movements concerning Tunisian assets in France.” It was only on Saturday that France made clear that Mr. Ben Ali’s family would not be welcome to remain here.
All that seemed late to many, who note the lavish way that French officials, ambassadors and businessmen — many with vacation properties in Tunisia and Morocco — have been treated by the countries’ rulers.
François Hollande, a leading member of the opposition Socialist Party, said that “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.”
Maïa de la Baume and Scott Sayare contributed reporting.