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French foreign minister hangs on despite calls to quit

France’s Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie fended off renewed calls for her to resign Wednesday after the government backed her amid a series of embarrassing revelations about her ties to Tunisia during the country’s popular uprising.


AFP - France's foreign minister fended off fresh calls to resign on Wednesday over her links to Tunisia, with revelations of her family business interests there and contact with its deposed dictator.

The investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine said Michele Alliot-Marie's father Bernard Marie and his wife Renee, both in their 90s, bought a stake in a property company from a Tunisian businessman allegedly close to the regime.

Bernard Marie acknowledged making the transaction but insisted it was a private affair and the minister denounced what she said was an attack on her parents' private life.

"You may well repeat lies, that will not make them true," she told parliament, responding to calls for her to resign by opponents accusing her of inappropriate conduct in Tunisia.

"I regret that you are so petty and abject as to use my parents to attack me politically," she said.

Separately an aide to Alliot-Marie admitted on Wednesday that the minister had spoken by telephone to Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali while she was on holiday in Tunisia during the uprising that eventually deposed him.

"It is the job of the foreign affairs minister to speak with ministers and heads of state," Alliot-Marie told the free newspaper Metro.

"I spoke briefly by phone to the Tunisian president at the time as I have had during my vacations telephone conversations with the presidents of Senegal, Chad, Gabon and a number of my counterparts," she said, adding that her relations with Ben Ali "were nothing personal".

But the revelation raised doubts about Alliot-Marie's earlier account of her visit, which she had insisted was a private affair not related to her job as minister. She had not previously mentioned her conversation with Ben Ali.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government backed her on Wednesday, but the revelations fuelled allegations by opponents and the media of a conflict of interest that they said made her position untenable.

"She has not stopped lying to the French people," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the opposition Socialist who has led the charge against her, on France Info radio.

He said that if Alliot-Marie and her husband, junior government minister Patrick Ollier, "had a sense of the state and the interests of France, they would themselves explain all the accusations against them, and resign."

The daily Le Monde asked in a fierce editorial: "How low must you go in triviality and indignity before the French foreign minister understands that she is harming the authority of her position?"

Sarkozy presented a written "message of support" to Alliot-Marie at a cabinet meeting, two ministers present told AFP.

"The gist of the message was that there is no question of giving in to an outburst, no question of letting Michele Alliot-Marie go," said one of the ministers, who asked not to be named.

Spokesman Francois Baroin told reporters that Alliot-Marie "has the total support of the government team."

Sarkozy defended Alliot-Marie last week after the last round of revelations but observed that "it wasn't the best idea to go to Tunisia" in December.

He also defended his Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who admitted holidaying in Egypt at the expense of its now-deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.

France had warm relations with Ben Ali's authoritarian regime for 23 years but turned its back on him after he was driven out in January by the popular uprising.

Le Canard Enchaine last month broke the initial story that Alliot-Marie accepted free rides in a plane owned by Miled, also during her December holiday, while the uprising that drove out Ben Ali was under way.

The minister also caused an uproar by suggesting in January that France could help train Tunisia's police to keep order, as reports were already emerging of security forces killing unarmed protestors.

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