French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that France "underestimated" the gravity of Tunisian political discontent, while noting that France's former colonial role required it to steer clear of Tunisia's "internal affairs".
Following fierce criticism of France’s policies on Tunisia from even before the current political crisis, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has admitted that his government “underestimated” the gravity of the situation in the North African nation.
Speaking to the press on Monday, Sarkozy noted that Tunisia’s economic and social successes masked a deep political discontent. “[B]ehind the emancipation of women, the drive for education and training, the economic dynamism, the emergence of a middle class – there was despair, a suffering, a sense of suffocation,” he said. “We have to recognise that we underestimated this.”
Sarkozy’s remarks come as France tries to adjust its diplomatic stance toward a former protectorate, with past policies having been characterised as deeply inconsistent.
Getting rid of ‘colonial habits’
France has been criticised for turning a blind eye to ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime over his 23 years in power, while praising the leader’s economic initiatives and anti-terrorist rhetoric.
On January 11, as Tunisia’s anti-government street protests continued to gather force, French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie sparked controversy by suggesting that France might consider helping Tunisian security forces better control the protesters. Her comments were slammed in France by the opposition Socialists and on the Web, where anti-Ben Ali activists had been voicing their anger and organising street demonstrations via Twitter and Facebook. In an interview with France24.com after Alliot-Marie’s statement, Vincent Geisser, a researcher specialising in the Arab world at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, called the French response to the events in Tunisia “unrealistic and shocking to many people”.
At the same time, reports surfaced that several of Ben Ali’s closest relatives, including his daughter, were already staying at a luxury hotel at the Euro Disney resort near Paris. A day later, after a Sarkozy administration spokesperson stated that Ben Ali’s relatives had no reason to remain, they left Paris for the Middle East.
French officials from both sides of the political spectrum have long offered only muted reactions to civil rights issues in Tunisia. In his press conference on Monday, Sarkozy cited France’s colonial history in the region – Tunisia acquired total independence in 1956, following a violent backlash against French rule – as the reason for treading lightly in reacting to the situation unfolding in Tunisia.
“The colonial power always lacks legitimacy in passing judgment on the internal affairs of an ex-colony,” Sarkozy said. “I do not want France to be likened to a country that has kept its colonial habits.”
Sarkozy also said that he had asked Prime Minister François Fillon to prepare an emergency aid package for Tunisia to help ease the country’s transition toward a new government.
France is Tunisia’s top trading partner and more than 20,000 French citizens currently reside in the country, which is known as much for its glittering Mediterranean coast as for its political woes. The Tunisian diaspora in France is estimated to be roughly 700,000 strong.
Date created : 2011-01-24