France

France finally abandons its Tunisian ally

Reuters/Robert Pratta

France may have stood by Tunisia's authoritarian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali until his very last days - but on Saturday, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered his support for the "democratic will" of Tunisia’s protesters, and called for free and fair elections.

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After holding a meeting with several of his ministers in Paris, Sarkozy voiced his support for Tunisian people, and announced measures to block suspicious movements of Tunisian assets in France.

Despite concerns about Ben Ali’s human rights record and refusal to open up the political process, French leaders had long praised Tunisia's economic development.

But when massive protests and violence rocked the capital, Tunis, calling for Ben Ali to step down, Tunisia’s leader of 23 years found that France's airports were closed to him.

"We don't want him to come," a government official said late Friday, arguing that granting Ben Ali exile in Tunisia's former colonial power would upset the hundreds of thousands of French residents of Tunisian origin.

Hundreds of Tunisians had already taken to the streets across France to celebrate Ben Ali's downfall, with many criticising Paris for sticking by him for so long.

The French foreign ministry said simply that if the former Tunisian leader sought asylum in France, it would take a decision in coordination with what it called "the constitutional Tunisian authorities".

As rights groups and Tunisia's persecuted opposition denounced Ben Ali's regime for shooting unarmed demonstrators, Sarkozy remained silent and his foreign minister offered support to the hated Tunisian police.

Many Franco-Tunisians condemned Sarkozy's silence as "complicity" in Ben Ali's authoritarianism. On an April 2008 visit to Tunis, Sarkozy shocked many observers by praising his host and insisted that "the space for liberty is growing".

Some members of Ben Ali's inner circle managed to get out of the country in the days before his escape, and are now holed up with a security team at the Disneyland resort just east of Paris.

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