Sarkozy trumpets Mediterranean Union in Tunisia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy pitched for close cooperation between Europe and its southern Mediterranean neighbours in a speech to Tunis students Wednesday on the final day of his state visit to Tunisia.


Tunisian rights activists criticised visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy after he praised the Tunis government’s anti-terrorism fight and said he would not give lessons on human rights.


At the start of a trip aimed at boosting economic ties with one of France’s closest Arab allies, Sarkozy said on Monday that Tunisia had made advances in granting more personal freedoms.


He said President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987, was fighting terrorism—“the enemy of democracy”—and warned of the consequences for regional security if a Taliban-style government took power in a north African country.


“Sarkozy skirted the issue of human rights and democracy in Tunisia to put France’s trade interests first,” said Rachid Kechana, editor of the pro-opposition weekly Al Mawqaf.


“It shocked rights activists here as they expected a different stand from France, the motherland of human rights and freedoms.”


Kechana and Al Mawqaf managing director Nejib Allouz are in the fourth day of a hunger strike at their newspaper’s offices in Tunis to protest at what they call a government attempt to strangle its finances and block its distribution.


The government denies the accusations.


Sarkozy and Ben Ali oversaw on Monday the signing of accords on nuclear cooperation, migration and aid.


State airline Tunisair reached a $1.57 billion deal to buy 19 planes from Airbus, a unit of French-German aerospace and defence group EADS . French engineering firm Alstom also won a 360 million euro deal to equip a Tunisian power plant.


Tunisia is the Maghreb’s most westernised state but rights groups accuse the government of muzzling the press and beating and jailing opponents.


The authorities deny the accusations. They say they are committed to democracy and respect of human rights and will press ahead with democratic reforms to prevent radical Islamists emerging to wreck the region’s stability.


Tunisia, a former French colony, is the only Maghreb country that explicitly forbids Islamists to form a legal political party.


The security services have cracked down on anyone showing a readiness to join or help al Qaeda. Lawyers say about 1,000 people have been arrested since 2003 on terrorism charges.


“Sarkozy is encouraging the government here to pursue its repression because he told the country’s leaders they are on the right track,” said Radia Nasraoui, a human rights lawyer.


But Reda Kefi, editor of the independent weekly L’Expression, said pressure from France or other Western countries would not help advance democracy in Tunisia.


“Sarkozy is France’s president and he came here to defend French interests,” Kefi said. “The issue of democracy and progress of human rights in Tunisia is a Tunisian question that must remain between Tunisians.”

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