France Tries to Forget a Tunisian ‘Good Friend’

January 18, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) welcomes Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali back in July 13, 2008 at the Grand Palais in Paris. (Dominique Faget/Getty Images )
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) welcomes Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali back in July 13, 2008 at the Grand Palais in Paris. (Dominique Faget/Getty Images )
PARIS—When ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country Jan 14, the presidential plane first flew towards France before changing course and going back south finally landing in Saudi Arabia. That same day several private planes flew to and from France allegedly ensuring the escape of Ben Ali’s family members and an accumulation of personal wealth.

The French authorities’ refusal of Ben Ali’s landing proposed comes as an illustration of France’s new attitude towards the president whom it has fully supported for years.

Just three days before Ben Ali was overthrown, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Michele Alliot-Marie, proposed sending French police to help calm the protests in Tunisia. Her proposal was booed by a united front of French media and opposition leaders.

Over the past few days semantics have shifted in French media, "protests" have become "the jasmine revolution," and "President Ben Ali" has become "the dictator." In addition, many who have kept silent for years about human rights violations in the country are now speaking out, with descriptions of Tunisia as a hell on earth controlled by a bloody mafia.

From it’s public communications, the French government appears to be trying to find its way through the unexpected circumstances. French President Nicolas Sarkozy first coldly indicated that France “took note of the constitutional transition,” then on Saturday, after a night to think things over, the president released a statement from illustrating the French government’s discomfort. With rather unusual wording, the statement began by saying that “French policies are based on two principles: first, not meddling with the internal affairs of a sovereign state; second, supporting democracy and freedom.”

The first point almost excuses France for not condemning the violence that claimed dozens of lives in Tunisia over the past month, while the second point seems aimed at creating good relations with the new Tunisian government. This offer of friendship is confirmed by the next sentence of the statement, “For several weeks,” the statement reads, “the Tunisian people have expressed their hope for democracy. France, united to Tunisia by so many links of friendship, will give them determined support.”

The French government has yet to explain what looks like an about-face in communication— with the friendship expressed to the new Tunisian government not looking much different from that previously expressed to Ben Ali.

In addition, no one has forgotten the statement made by former French President Jacques Chirac while visiting Tunisia in 2003, “The first of human right is to have food, medical care, education and housing,” Chirac said. “From this point of view, we have to recognize that Tunisia is well advanced compared to many countries.”

President Sarkozy took the same angle when addressing Ben Ali for the first time in 2007, “There is a very strong friendship between France and Tunisia, made of respect and mutual trust, and this must be maintained and developed,” the French President said.

Sarkozy went one step further in 2008 on his first official trip to Tunisia, saying, “Today, the space for freedom is getting wider. These are encouraging signals that I want to honor. These signals, these reforms are being made on a narrow and difficult way, that of respecting individuals.”

“No country can claim having made it through completely,” Sarkozy said “…I don’t see how I would dare, in this country where I come as a friend, stand and offer a lesson. I fully trust, Mr. President [Ben Ali], that you will make the space for freedom wider.”

The turnaround from these statements to the “bloody mafia” currently echoing in the news is significant. On Jan. 18, Alliot-Marie was asked to explain her proposal for police support in Tunisia at a hearing at the Foreign Affairs Commission of the French National Assembly.

French Budget Minister and government spokesperson, Francois Baroin, stated that Ben Ali’s family should leave France and France also announced it would block any movement of the Ben Ali family’s  financial assets, indirectly confirming the existence of such assets in France.