France faces criticism over soft touch with Tunisia

As the death toll mounts in Tunisia from protests against Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, France’s caution in denouncing the violence has drawn considerable criticism. France24.com takes a closer look.


As the Tunisian government clamps down on spreading civilian protests in the country, much of the international community has spoken out: the EU, US, and the UN, for example, have released firm statements against the Tunisian authorities’ actions and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from the violence.

But Paris’s muted response to the protests and repression in its former North African protectorate has raised eyebrows and drawn criticism from both inside and outside of France.

A ‘balanced’ French position?

On Thursday, weeks after the first protests started in mid-December, French Prime Minister François Fillon finally denounced what he called “a disproportionate use of force” by Tunisian authorities. Protesters have faced off against military units and riot police, with the International Federation for Human Rights saying Thursday that 66 people had been killed in the unrest.

“Deploring the violence, calling for peace, expressing our concern, this is a balanced position that France considers appropriate for the Tunisian situation”, added government spokesman François Baroin. “Considering our ties of friendship [with Tunisia] and our common history, going further would amount to interference, which is not at all French diplomatic style”.

One day before, Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie had refused to “pose as a lesson giver in a situation we realize is complex” and suggested that French police forces could help their Tunisian counterparts “appease the situation through law enforcement techniques ”. Her remarks created a buzz of disapproval on Twitter and Facebook where anti-Ben Ali militants have been posting messages and spreading information on the protests.

The riots in Tunisia were set off when a street vendor set himself on fire Dec. 17 after police confiscated his stand because he did not have a permit. Demonstrators have been demanding more jobs, but have also been protesting against the repressive government and calling specifically for the departure of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Criticism of France’s moderation in response to the turmoil mounted Wednesday with a statement from French Socialists “regretting the heavy silence of French authorities” in the matter. “France’s voice should be clear and today it is totally weak, as if it had to be in sync with President Ben Ali and his regime”, added French Socialist Jean-Marc Ayrault interviewed on French TV Thursday.

”France should condemn, and I personally condemn the repression [in Tunisia]: citizens are being shot, there are people being killed”, he said. He also qualified as “shameful” Michèle Alliot-Marie’s allusion to potential security cooperation between France and Tunisia to better control the protesters.

Socialist Party head and presidential hopeful Martine Aubry also added her voice to the growing chorus of criticism from the French left, urging France “to strongly condemn the unacceptable repression” in Tunisia.


'Unrealistic and shocking'

Interviewed by France24.com, Vincent Geisser, a researcher specialised in the Arab world, called the French reaction to the Tunisian crisis “unrealistic and shocking to many people”. Meanwhile, the executive editor of Algerian newspaper Le Matin, Mohamed Benchicou, slammed France’s last two presidents (as well as former US president George W. Bush) for supporting the Tunisian regime in the name of a “cynical opposition” between “dictatorship and terrorism”, “peace and freedom”.

France may pay ‘steep price’

France’s muted reaction to civil rights issues in Tunisia is nothing new. Officials on both side of the French political spectrum have for decades carried on a particular brand of “friendly” diplomacy with the country. France’s charged history in the region – Tunisia acquired total independence in 1956 following a period of violent backlashes against France – at least partly accounts for the fact that it treads lightly in its dealings with Tunisia. Moreover, there is today a large Tunisian diaspora in France and the two countries enjoy close economic ties.

French leaders have therefore often hesitated to take too firm a stance with their Tunisian counterparts. In 2003, former President Jacques Chirac ruffled feathers when interviewed about a female lawyer’s hunger strike in protest against Tunisian authorities’ human rights abuses. “The most basic of all human rights is to eat, to be cared for, to have access to an education and a home”, Chirac said, seeming to praise the country.

A similar tone was struck by Sarkozy on a visit to Tunis in 2008, when he announced that liberties were evolving in Tunisia and paid homage to “the country’s determined fight against terrorism, the true enemy of democracy”.

According to Vincent Geisser, France risks “paying a steep price” for this attitude. “Whether Tunisia moves toward a radical regime change or a more moderate solution, France could be left out of the process”, he said. “Not only in Tunisia, but all over North Africa”.

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