French minister quits over ties to ousted Tunisian regime

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie resigned Sunday after weeks of growing criticism over her links to the former government of Tunisia.

In a hasty but widely expected government reshuffle — the fourth in a year — Alliot-Marie, one of the government's longest serving ministers, was replaced by conservative Alain Juppe, who served as prime minister and foreign minister in the 1990s but was convicted in a 2004 political corruption scandal.

The moves came as criticism swirls over France's inability to come to grips with the pace of change in the Arab world and popular uprisings in some of its former colonies. It was slow to respond to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and now faces criticism for its links with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

President Nicolas Sarkozy went on television Sunday night to address charges that his foreign policy was "amateur" and "impulsive." An anonymous group of French diplomats leveled the charges last week in the respected Le Monde newspaper.

Sarkozy spoke of "historic changes" in the Arab world, where he said people were "taking their future in their own hands and overthrowing their regimes." He defended France's relations with these governments, because, he said, they had seemed a "rampart against extremism and terrorism."

Alliot-Marie's woes began in January when she offered to send French security forces to help quell the uprising in Tunisia, just three days before protesters forced autocratic longtime leader Zine el Abidine ben Ali to flee the country.

Her judgment was further called into question when it was revealed she had spent a post-Christmas holiday in Tunisia, as the civil unrest was spreading, twice using a private jet belonging to a businessman alleged to have close ties to the nation's rulers.

In her resignation letter, Alliot-Marie, 64, who had been at the Foreign Ministry for three months, insisted she had "committed no fault." Rather, she wrote, she was the "target of political and media attacks that have created suspicion" and of "harassment" that verged on "a conspiracy."

Alliot-Marie insisted she went on a private holiday but it was later revealed that during the visit, her parents, who had accompanied her, had invested in a property company owned by the same businessman, and she had spoken to Ben Ali by telephone.

In his remarks Sunday outlining the reshuffle, Sarkozy made no mention of Alliot-Marie.

A minister under Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Alliot-Marie had been kept on when the president took office in 2007. She first entered government in 1986 and rose steadily to become the first woman to head the Defense and Interior ministries. She also served as Justice minister.

At first, Sarkozy resisted calls for her resignation. The pro-government newspaper Le Figaro reported that on Feb. 16 the president gave Alliot-Marie a note of support during a meeting of Cabinet ministers, reading: "Hold on! Your friends are with you. N.S."

Before leaving for a visit to Kuwait on Friday, Alliot-Marie told French radio: "For weeks there have been arguments, rumors, attacks and it has been very disagreeable, especially as my family has been targeted. But I have already said, I have done nothing illegal, nothing wrong and furthermore the president of the republic has said so himself."

Alliot-Marie was not the only minister to be criticized for their choice of vacation destination. According to news reports, Prime Minister Francois Fillon visited Egypt at year's end at the expense of since-deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

But what appeared to be the final straw for Alliot-Marie came last week when Le Monde published the complaints of the anonymous diplomats.

Juppe, 65, previously served as prime minister and foreign secretary under Chirac. In 2004, he was given an 18-month suspended sentence and banned from public office for 10 years for abuse of public money in a party funding scam. The ban was reduced to one year, and the sentence to 14 months suspended, on appeal.

Juppe's job at the Defense Ministry was taken by Gerard Longuet, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party's leader in the Senate.

Also in the reshuffle, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, one of Sarkozy's closest friends, left his government job to run the president's campaign for reelection next year. His post was taken by Claude Gueant, one of Sarkozy's advisors at the Elysee Palace.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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