France rocked by news of aid to Tunisia and Egypt
As French officials continue to grapple with the fallout of their African foreign policy, they have been rocked by new disclosures about aid to security forces in Tunisia and Egypt, and calls for the foreign minister’s resignation over her holiday in Tunisia during the uprising there.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon confirmed this week that the government had authorized a shipment of tear gas grenades to Tunis on Jan. 12, two days before Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was toppled from power.
And with chaos enveloping Egypt, it has been revealed that in October, France trained Egyptian police officers in crowd control. Protesters in Cairo have accused police, both in and out of uniform, of attacking them. A page on the website of the French Embassy in Cairo confirms that the city had the “benefit of 20 officers from the public order and state security services” who taught their Egyptian counterparts how to “restore order.”
“Either their teaching methods leave a lot to be desired, or there’s something sinister about the French police handbook,” opined Radio France International.
The double faux pas comes as Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie faces renewed calls for her resignation over what critics say are links to Ben Ali and his associates.
Alliot-Marie, according to a French news report, used a private jet belonging a businessman connected with the disgraced leader’s family during her vacation in Tunisia after the social unrest broke out.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist deputies in the French National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, said, “The foreign minister is totally disqualified from representing France. She no longer has a place in government and should resign.”
Later he told journalists, “To take your holidays in Tunisia in the middle of a crackdown when you are a minister of the republic ... it’s surreal.”
Gerard Longuet, leader of the minister’s political party in the Senate, the upper house, suggested that Alliot-Marie “could have taken her holidays in France.”
French government spokesman Francois Baroin, however, expressed some support. “Michele Alliot-Marie explained, offered a mea culpa and said she would not do it again,” he told a meeting of ministers.
Weeks ago, Alliot-Marie was criticized for offering to prop up Ben Ali’s unpopular administration just days before he fled the country. She suggested sending France’s “world renowned” security forces to help quell the uprising.
Now it has emerged that on her vacation, Alliot-Marie, 64; her partner, Patrick Ollier, who is also a government minister; and her parents accepted a flight in a nine-seat private jet belonging to businessman Aziz Miled.
The French satirical and investigative paper Le Canard Enchaîné, which broke the story, said Miled was a “longtime friend” of the minister and a close associate of Ben Ali’s brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi.
Alliot-Marie’s office acknowledged that she had taken the private jet, but denied that Miled was a friend of Ben Ali, saying that he was, in fact, a “victim” of Tunisia’s autocratic ruling clan. Alliot-Marie appeared on television to explain and defend herself.
Miled, who is in his 70s, was a carpet salesman before he created a travel empire. After a course at a catering school in the south of France he returned to Tunisia and founded a travel agency and an airline called Nouvelair. Trabelsi later became director general of the airline.
Friends say Miled was forced to put Trabelsi in the post; critics say he worked hand in hand with the Ben Ali clan. Miled has taken over the position from Trabelsi, according to Tunisian news reports.
In August, the Tunisian newspaper Echourouq published an appeal from 65 “personalities” calling for Ben Ali to stand again as president in 2014. Miled was among the signatories.
Willsher is a special correspondent.