TUNISIA: France’s attitude toward crackdown raises eyebrows


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When 26-year-old Iranian demonstrator Neda Agha-Soltan died on video in the streets of Tehran during the wave of post-election protests that rocked Iran in 2009, France reacted with fury and was quick to denounce crackdowns by security forces on demonstrators.

And when Tunisia, a former French colony, began to violently repress protests against the reign of a long-ruling autocrat, France took a strong stance as well -- in tacit support of the oppressor.


In the North African country, ruled by Paris’ longtime ally President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who departed from office Friday, escalating violence and police crackdowns on demonstrators have claimed scores of lives in recent weeks. The turmoil and repression there, however, have so far only triggered muted reactions and cryptic media statements from Paris.

‘Rather than issuing anathemas, I think our duty is to make a calm and objective analysis of the situation,’ French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was quoted by French media reports as telling Parliament this week when she came under criticism from the opposition over France’s restrained reaction to the riots and crackdowns in Tunisia.

Alliot-Marie reportedly even cited a possible ‘security cooperation’ deal between Tunisia and France, something for which she was scorned by top French Socialist Party member Jean-Marc Ayrault on Thursday. He said her remarks were of a low character and that the departure of Tunisian President Ben Ali from power was inevitable.

The French government’s attitude toward the situation in Tunisia, compared with its strong denunciations of other countries around the world engaged in repressive behavior, has puzzled and even angered observers. Some go so far as to say that Paris’ silence on the repression in Tunisia makes it complicit in the crackdown which, according to official reports, has claimed the lives of dozens of people.

The video below purportedly shows Tunisian security forces vandalizing stores, in what some say was an attempt by them to blame the destruction on demonstrators.

The high number of deaths and France’s attitude toward ongoing clampdowns appear also to have upset French nationals with North African roots. In Marseille, a city with a large North African immigrant population, between 700 and 1,000 people marched in the streets Wednesday in support of the Tunisian people -- reportedly shouting ‘murderer Ben Ali’ in reference to the Tunisian president -- and some protestors denounced France’s idle response to the turmoil.

‘We no longer have the right to be afraid, we are here for the Tunisians,’ Abdesslem Bayaoui, whose family lives in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid where the protest movement began, told Agence France-Presse (link in French).’ French President Nicolas Sarkozy ‘speaks for everyone, but now he says nothing while the people suffer.’

As clashes between protesters and security forces reached the Tunisian capital Wednesday, with reports of violence overnight and more deaths in various Tunisian cities, the first secretary of the opposition French Socialist Party, or PS, Martine Aubry, called on France to take a tougher stance toward the Tunisian authorities.

‘I would like to say to the Tunisian people that it has the full support and solidarity of the PS, and we ask that France adopt a strong position condemning the unacceptable repression,’ she was quoted as saying in French media reports (link in French).

It wasn’t until Thursday -- about a month into the riots -- that France finally broke its silence over the violence in Tunisia as gunshots rang out in the center of the Tunisian capital. During a visit to London, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon denounced what he said was the ‘disproportionate’ use of force by authorities against Tunisian demonstrators and called on all sides to ‘show restraint, according to the Reuters news agency. His remarks were considered the strongest criticism yet by France of Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule.

Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia with an iron grip for 23 years and the country is considered one of the worst police states in the region. But his government’s ability to keep Islamists at bay and protect France’s interests earned him Paris’ trust.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut