Embarrassed France abandons its Tunisian ally

An embarrassed Paris belatedly declared Abidine Ben Ali as persona non grata.

Paris: Until the very last days of his often brutal reign, France stood by Tunisia`s authoritarian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and only finally abandoned him once his downfall was inevitable.

Despite concerns about his human rights record and refusal to open up the political process, French leaders had praised Tunisia`s economic development and seen his rule as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

But when his people took to the streets to oust him and the time came for Ben Ali to take the path of exile he found France`s airports closed to him, as an embarrassed Paris belatedly declared him persona non grata.
"We don`t want him to come," a government official said late yesterday, arguing that granting Ben Ali exile in Tunisia`s former colonial power would upset the hundreds of thousands of French residents of Tunisian origin.

Then today, after weeks of violence that left dozens dead, President Nicolas Sarkozy finally offered "determined support" for the "democratic will" of the protesters, and called for free and fair elections.

But before he issued the statement, hundreds of Tunisians had taken to the streets of cities across France to celebrate Ben Ali`s downfall, and many criticised Paris for sticking by its iron-fisted ally for 23 long years.

In Lyon, Tunisians brandished a banner reading "Ben Ali: murderer, France: accomplice", and demonstrators demanded that the ousted leader -- now seeking safety in Saudi Arabia -- be returned home for trial.
The French foreign ministry said simply that if the former Tunisian leader sought asylum in France, it would take a decision in coordination with what it called "the constitutional Tunisian authorities".

Some members of Ben Ali`s inner circle managed to get out of the country in the days before his hasty escape, and are now holed up with a security team in a VIP suite at the Disneyland resort just east of Paris.

But Paris must now to build new relations with whatever new regime the upheaval creates in Tunisia, where France still has major interests, close business ties and around 21,000 citizens, most of them dual nationals.

And inside France it may have to reassure its won Tunisian minority, many of whom were shocked by what they saw as Paris`s callous silence during the days of protest, even after a police crackdown left dozens dead.

As rights groups and Tunisia`s persecuted opposition denounced Ben Ali`s regime for shooting unarmed demonstrators, Sarkozy remained silent and his foreign minister offered support to the hated Tunisian police.

Bureau Report