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France - Tunisia

Hollande visits Tunisia amid turmoil in Egypt

Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

French President Francois Hollande arrived on Thursday in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, on a visit which is likely to be dominated by the turmoil in Egypt and its wider implications.

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Presidential spokesman Romain Nadal said that during his visit Hollande was "naturally ready to discuss" the situation "in Egypt, Libya and Syria", other Arab countries swept by popular uprisings.

Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda, is close to the Muslim Brotherhood of Mohamed Morsi, who on Wednesday was ousted from the Egyptian presidency by the army after days of massive popular protests.

Ennahda's veteran party leader Rached Ghannouchi ruled out a similar scenario in Tunisia.

He said Tunisia was not as politically divided as Egypt because of a "consensus especially between the Islamist and modernist movements".

Despite a wave of violence linked to radical Islamists, and political tensions notably over the draft constitution, Tunisia is considered the Arab Spring country most likely to succeed a transition to democracy.

With its historical ties and investments, France has a direct interest in seeing it do so.

François Hollande’s two-day trip is the first by a French president since the January 2011 revolution which ousted veteran strongman and former French ally Zine El Abidine
Ben Ali.

The French president’s entourage said he would deliver a “message of encouragement” while in Tunisia.

Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was accused of supporting Ben Ali until he fled.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday said that of all the Arab Spring states, Tunisia probably had "the best chance of succeeding”.

"It's not a very big country, but it is quite developed, there is a traditional respect for women and it has economic resources but it needs aid," Fabius told the French station i-Télé.

Hollande will meet his Tunisian counterpart Moncef Marzouki, whose secular centre-left party is a coalition ally of Ennahda, before holding talks with Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh.

The French president is accompanied by around 10 ministers, with his interior minister Manuel Valls notably absent after he upset Ennahda when he spoke of "Islamic fascism" following the February assassination of Tunisian opposition figure Chokri Belaid.

But Hollande is expected to underline the importance Paris attaches to "respect for individual liberties", his entourage says, "without interfering in any way in the activity of the Tunisian judiciary".

Hollande is accompanied by 40 French business leaders as well as the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, who won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize this year, and Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights.

Hollande is also expected to announce that France will maintain aid to Tunisia which currently amounts to around 500 million euros.

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