French minister stands firm as Tunisia scandal swirls


PARIS – French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie fought off renewed calls to resign Thursday over her links to Tunisia’s deposed regime, amid fears France was losing diplomatic clout over the scandal. The opposition is demanding the minister stand down following the latest revelation that her parents bought a stake in a property company from a Tunisian businessman allegedly close to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Alliot-Marie, 64, has slammed what she called an attack on her elderly parents’ private life over the deal with Aziz Miled, who also provided her with free plane rides during a December holiday while the uprising against Ben Ali was under way.
French newspapers laid into Alliot-Marie over the “calamity”, “lies” and “untruths”. The left-leaning daily Liberation said that she “bends but does not break” despite “increasingly embarrassing” the government.
On Thursday, left-wing opposition senators boycotted a hearing by Alliot-Marie at the Senate’s foreign affairs committee in a bid to get her to step down. “We decided to boycott in order to say to the president, that’s enough, people have to take their responsibilities,” said the head of the Socialists’ grouping in the Senate, Jean-Pierre Bel.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government backed Alliot-Marie on Wednesday, but the revelations have fuelled allegations by opponents and the media of a conflict of interest that they said made her position untenable. 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?”
An aide to Alliot-Marie admitted on Wednesday that the minister had spoken by telephone to Tunisian leader Ben Ali while she was on holiday in Tunisia during the uprising that eventually deposed him. 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.
Socalist Jean-Marc Ayrault has accused Alliot-Marie of constantly lying to the French people, while Green MP Noel Mamere said that “in any other European Union country she would have been asked to resign.” The head of the Socialist party, Martine Aubry, called for “measures” to be taken in order to end the turpitude. But the embattled minister has couter-attacked, accusing the opposition in parliament of silence over important international issues such as developments in the Middle East.
Alliot-Marie “has a thick hide, the idea of resigning hasn’t even crossed her mind,” said one of her colleagues. But even within Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party some fear that the affair is paralysing French diplomacy. “Because of the Alliot-Marie business, Paris can’t do anything and must content itself with discreetly approving decisions taken elsewhere,” an unnamed French diplomat told Le Canard Enchaine, a satirical weekly newspaper.
Alliot-Marie had already 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 protesters. Le Parisien daily said that Sarkozy’s dilemma was how to get rid of Alliot-Marie while keeping Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who has admitted holidaying in Egypt at the expense of its now-deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.