Michèle Alliot-Marie – a rare bird’s fall from grace
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Over the years, Michèle Alliot-Marie picked up an impressive number of ministerial titles and steered clear of the scandals that have blighted the French government. And then along came Tunisia's popular uprising.
Until the Tunisian scandal broke, Michèle Alliot-Marie – or MAM as she is popularly called – was the rock-solid golden girl of French conservatism.
Alliot-Marie's CV reads as one of the most impeccable political pedigrees in modern French history, and one that defies the misogyny traditionally associated with the country’s politics.
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.
A practicing lawyer, MAM kicked off her political career in 1983 as a municipal counsellor in Ciboure, a village in south-west France. In 1986, she was elected to the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, to represent the Pyrénées-Atlantique region.
In the same year, she served in Prime Minister Jacques Chirac’s government as secretary of state for education. In 1993, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur appointed her as the minister of sport and youth affairs in his new cabinet.
When the Socialists came to power in 1997, Alliot-Marie ran for the presidency of the centre-right Rally for the Republic party (RPR) and, to everyone’s surprise, beat Chirac’s favoured candidate to become the first woman to lead a major French political party.
Ministerial grand slam
Alliot-Marie, at 64, is the only French politician to have scored a grand slam of senior ministries.
In 2002, she became the first woman to hold the portfolio of defence, a position she occupied for five years. As a resolute defence minister, she dealt with the crisis in Ivory Coast and defended France’s stance against the Iraq War. In 2006, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 57th most powerful woman in the world.
In the build-up to the 2007 presidential vote, she contemplated running against Nicolas Sarkozy to represent the right-wing UMP, but eventually decided to endorse Sarkozy instead. But she sought to cement her support within the party by launching “Le Chêne” (the Oak tree), a movement to revive Gaullist values.
After Sarkozy’s election to the presidency, Alliot-Marie was appointed as interior minister in Prime Minister François Fillon’s cabinet, before moving on to the Justice Ministry in 2009. In yet another first, she went on the next year to replace Bernard Kouchner at the Quai d’Orsay, becoming France’s first female minister of foreign affairs.
Scandal free – until now
As she glided from one senior ministry to another, Alliot-Marie proved particularly adept at steering clear of the undue drama and scandals that had long been a feature of French politics. But that all ended with her Christmas vacation in Tunisia.
In January of this year, it emerged Alliot-Marie had used the private jet of a businessman with close links to Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during a trip to the tourist-friendly North African nation with her husband, Patrick Ollier, who also happens to be a government minister.
At the time of the trip, ordinary Tunisians incensed at the rampant corruption and cronyism of the Ben Ali regime had already embarked on a popular uprising that would lead, only two weeks later, to the reviled president’s abrupt ouster.
Alliot-Marie’s shoddy defence only made matters worse. The French foreign minister was repeatedly forced to amend her account of events, not least when it emerged her parents had signed a property deal with the Tunisian businessman during the holiday.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 in February, Alliot-Marie said, “I’ve done nothing that is politically reprehensible.” She insisted that while she was on vacation she was “no longer the foreign affairs minister” - only to backtrack and later declare, “It’s true that one is a minister 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.”