Sarkozy to address human rights issue in Tunisia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy makes his second visit to Tunisia on Monday. The sale of some twenty Airbus planes and contracts in the energy market are on the agenda. He will also address the situation on human rights in the country.


See also: Rights groups sound alarm on Tunisia



French President Nicolas Sarkozy visits Tunisia Monday hoping to clinch nuclear and aviation deals with the north African state and push his plan for a Mediterranean Union, officials said.

He will also speak publicly about human rights in Tunisia where the government has long been accused of jailing and beating dissidents and blocking press freedom, officials in the president's office said.

Sarkozy will be accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and dozens of French business leaders for the 48-hour state visit to the former French protectorate of some 10 million people.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in power since 1987, on Sunday reiterated his support for the Mediterranean Union project.

"We are convinced that the Mediterranean must be an area of peace, cooperation and solidarity," he said in an interview with the government daily, La Presse.

The project, which has met with a cool welcome from some of France's European partners, is to be officially launched at a summit of European and Mediterranean leaders in Paris in July, when France will hold the EU's rotating presidency.

Its aim is to improve trade, transport and energy links between southern European countries and nations around the Mediterranean that include Morocco, Syria, Israel and Turkey.

Critics see it as a way for Sarkozy to keep Turkey out of the EU, and they say it will create a second division for the EU which would have to be paid for richer countries like Germany.

But Sarkozy is determined to advance the plan when he takes over the EU presidency on July 1.

The EU already has a framework for political, economic and social ties around the Mediterranean basin, the so-called Barcelona Process, but this has regularly been thwarted by confrontation between Israel and Arab countries.

Sarkozy will during his trip to Tunisia propose a nuclear cooperation agreement, similar to those France has endorsed with Libya, Morocco and Algeria, that offers the possibility of France delivering one or more nuclear reactors within the next 15 to 20 years.

France is Tunisia's top European trade partner, and Sarkozy hopes to keep it in pole position by clinching various deals.

Discussions are under way between the European plane-maker Airbus and Tunis Air for a contract for an undisclosed number of planes, and the French heavy engineering firm Alstom is in the running for a contract in a power plant construction project.

Elysee officials say that these two contracts could be "finalised" during Sarkozy's visit.

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