French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie came under pressure to quit Wednesday for flying in the private jet of a Tunisian businessman allegedly linked to ousted President Ben Ali as anti-government protests raged last December.
AFP - France's foreign minister fought off calls to resign over alleged links to Tunisia's ousted leader on Wednesday after a report that the owner of a private jet she used was close to his regime.
The allegations raised pressure on the minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, who was already under fire over France's stance towards Tunisia's former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, driven from Tunisia by popular protests last month.
Alliot-Marie admitted she and her family accepted a flight on a jet owned by Tunisian businessman Aziz Miled, but denied he was a close associate of Ben Ali, as the investigative satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine had reported.
Miled's name is on a public list of people subject to an assets freeze by Swiss authorities, as an associate of Ben Ali's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi.
Alliot-Marie angrily rejected the newspaper report as "lies" and insisted there were was no question of her resigning "over false claims".
"I only reply about these things because I don't like people telling lies about me," she told reporters after a cabinet meeting. Answering questions in parliament later, she was met with cries of "Resign" from the opposition.
She said she had accepted a flight from Tunis to the resort of Tabarka while on holiday in Tunisia in December -- after the start of protests against Ben Ali.
"A friend who was going to Tabarka with his plane offered to take us with him rather than spend two hours in a car as planned," she told reporters, referring to Miled. Le Canard Enchaine said he also owns the hotel where she stayed.
"He did not lend us his plane, we accompanied him on his journey," she said.
"If I sometimes go on holiday to Tunisia, it is at my own expense, the travel and the hotels," she told parliament.
She insisted that Miled was "a victim of the Ben Ali clan" rather than an ally and had his airline "plundered" by Trabelsi.
The affair nevertheless sparked a prompt call for her to resign from several opposition Socialists, including their parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault.
"She no longer has any place in government and must resign," he said. "For a minister of the republic to spend your holidays in Tunisia, which is under repression, is surreal."
Alliot-Marie has been a government minister for eight years, named by President Nicolas Sarkozy to head the foreign ministry last month after terms at justice and defence.
Last month, when rights groups were already reporting that Tunisia's hated police had shot dead dozens of unarmed protesters, Alliot-Marie suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.
It later emerged that France had approved the export of police equipment to Tunisia at the height of the violence.
"She must explain herself," said Ayrault, alleging that Alliot-Marie had failed to detail the full extent of France's police cooperation with Tunisia.
"I would like her to explain why she did not tell us the truth about the deliveries of police equipment including the tear gas canisters when people had already been killed in Tunisia," he said on RTL radio.
Sarkozy admitted last week that France had underestimated the anger of the Tunisian people at Ben Ali's regime, which it had praised in the past for its economic management.
France had warm ties with him during his 23 years in power but just after he was driven out, Sarkozy backed the protest movement. The fugitive ex-leader was denied refuge in France and went instead to Saudi Arabia.
Date created : 2011-02-02