France - Tunisia

France knew of Ben Ali regime's failings, says ex-ambassador

Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

The French government was fully aware of Tunisia's social problems under President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, according to France's former ambassador to Tunisia. In an article published in daily newspaper Libération on Wednesday, Yves Aubin de La Messuzière says that French diplomats' guidance on the matter was ignored.

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France's representatives in Tunis have regularly drawn attention to the decline of civil liberties and repression of non-governmental organisations for the past ten years, according to La Messuzière, who served as France's ambassador to Tunisia between 2002 and 2005.

Dossier: Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution

He says diplomats also pointed to the strangehold exerted over Tunisia's private sector by Ben Ali's extended family, which was considered a greater threat to the stability of the country than radical Islamist movements.

This account contradicts President Nicolas Sarkozy's statement on Monday that France "underestimated the Tunisians' desire for freedom".

Foreign service reports stressed "the exasperation and discontent of the Tunisian youth", La Messuzière writes. They blamed both Tunisia's economic problems and the lack of political freedom.

Diplomats were therefore both astonished and indignant, he claims, when Sarkozy congratulated Tunisia on its progress on civil liberties during a visit to Tunis in 2008.

A "substantantial effort" will now be required to repair relations between Paris and Tunis, La Messuzière says, suggesting that France take a leading role in European Union plans to send aid to the country's new government.

Sarkozy, who has been criticised for failing to take a stance against Ben Ali sooner, said that France had been obliged to act with "a certain reserve" given its history in Tunisia.

"The former colonial power should not be taking stances on the internal developments of former colonies," the president told a press conference on Monday.

He added that France was preparing to send an aid package to Tunisia, which was a French protectorate during the 20th century.

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