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Foreign affairs chief under fire over Tunisia flights

French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has come under intense criticism after a series of missteps linked to the political crisis in Tunisia. Though acknowledging an error of judgment on her part, France’s top diplomat has refused to step down.


A fixture of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and a trailblazer female politician, Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie is facing unprecedented calls for her resignation and finding little support from within her own political camp.

France's top diplomat has faced a barrage of criticism for accepting free private jet rides from an alleged associate of Tunisia’s deposed president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in the build-up to Ben Ali's ouster by a popular revolt. She has also come under fire for suggesting last week that she should not be held accountable as foreign affairs minister when on holiday.


“I’ve done nothing that is politically reprehensible,” she told FRANCE 24 on Sunday, while admitting that the revelations that she had accepted private plane rides could be “shocking” to French people. Alliot-Marie had initially claimed that her holiday preceded the worst of the violence in Tunisia, but it later emerged that a second flight on the private jet took place in late December while the uprising that eventually toppled Ben Ali was starting to grow.

Adding fuel to the controversy, the embattled minister defended her decision to accept the free plane trip by claiming: “When I am on vacation, I am no longer the foreign affairs minister.” Rectifying her position, and after a barrage of new criticism over that statement, Alliot-Marie told Europe 1 radio on Monday: “It’s true that one is a minister 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.” She also acknowledged she had made an error of judgement, but rejected opposition calls for her resignation.

Fellow UMP party members have tried to mitigate the damage. Henri de Raincourt, minister for overseas cooperation, told France Info: "[The ministry] is clearly a full-time role… nevertheless I don't see why a member of government should not have a right to a private life and a rest.”

But party support has not been unanimous. Valerie Rosso-Debord, a member of parliament for the UMP, told Europe 1 radio that Alliot-Marie had made an “unacceptable” mistake in the interpretation of her job function and confessed that the series of missteps made by foreign minister were “becoming annoying.” Fellow party member and Senator Alain Fouché expressed similar sentiments.

Diplomat on the defensive

Alliot-Marie set off a first controversy on January 11 when she told the National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament, that France could “offer the know-how of [its] security forces to help control” Tunisian protesters calling for Ben Ali’s resignation.

Nine days later and in the wake of Ben Ali’s flight from power she was forced to admit she had misspoken. At a hearing before the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee on January 20, she said: “It is inconceivable to believe that France could lend its security forces to another country”.

1999 - First woman to lead a major French party as president of the Gaulist Rally for the Republic (RPR) party.

2002 - First female minister of defence.

2007 - First female minister of the interior.

Alliot-Marie’s slip-ups linked to Tunisia and the subsequent effort to win back public support are a rare spectacle. She is known in France for the unyielding character which made her the country’s first female defence minister in 2002.

She has been described as fearless by the US business magazine Forbes, which reported that Alliot-Marie insists on being called “le ministre,” using the French masculine form, rather than the feminine “la ministre”. Forbes named her the 11th most powerful woman in its 2007 world ranking.

While it is unlikely that Alliot-Marie will step down, observers say the incidents have put a chink in her armour and further hurt France’s waning image as a heavyweight of international diplomacy.

"For 20 years I have always tried to pay for everything… but in this instance I did not. Was it because I was tired and among friends that I couldn’t see the reaction [the flights] could provoke? Yes, it’s possible that I regret it,” Alliot-Marie confessed on Monday, pledging never to board another private jet during her stint as France’s chief diplomat.

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