MARSEILLES // The protests that swept Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia led to a major government casualty in France yesterday when one of Nicolas Sarkozy's key ministers was forced to resign.
Michèle Alliot-Marie fought to the end to save her position as foreign minister but finally succumbed to growing pressure to stand down after just three months in the role.
Her position was made untenable by a series of gaffes in her handling of the crisis in France's former colonies. She also failed to deal convincingly with claims that she and her family benefited from the hospitality of Mr Ben Ali's entourage during a Christmas holiday in Tunisia.
Mr Sarkozy decided at the weekend that there was no alternative to Ms Alliot-Marie's departure from office.
Nevertheless, her downfall represents a blow for the French president little more than a year before he is expected run a second term.
When she was appointed in November, Miss Alliot-Marie was seen by Mr Sarkozy's supporters as forming an essential part of a "fighting government".
Last night, the president was due to go on live television to address his nation on French international policy. His intention to do so was reportedly made known to Miss Alliot-Marie in tense exchanges with an Elysée adviser as she continued to resist resignation calls.
Before she returned from Kuwait's celebrations to mark 50 years of independence, the minister was adamant that she was "100 per cent committed" to her job "whatever happens when I land in Paris".
She is expected to be replaced by Alain Juppé, a former prime minister who was given a suspended prison sentence and temporarily banned from civic office on political corruption charges in 2004.
Mr Juppé's political comeback has been so significant that he is seen by some as a possible successor to the present prime minister, François Fillon, if the president decides, as predicted, on a grander reshuffle of his cabinet in the coming weeks.
The term may be resignation, but there is no doubt that Miss Alliot-Marie has effectively been fired.
One unnamed minister quoted by Agence France-Presse said at the weekend that Miss Alliot-Marie had to go, not least because of Mr Sarkozy's lowly standing in opinion polls. "Michele Alliot-Marie has fallen and dragged everyone with her," the minister said. "This must be stopped."
Her undoing - her steely character has been likened to that of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, nicknamed the Iron Lady - began as the anti-government movement gathered force in North African.
First she offered French military expertise to help the authorities of Algeria and Tunisia deal with rioting. She later said she was "scandalised" by the interpretation placed on her remarks, but the riposte had little sway with critics.
Then it was revealed that even as the revolt grew in strength and determination, she and her partner, Patrick Ollier, also a government minister, and her elderly parents took a Tunisian Christmas holiday with free air travel supplied by an associate of Mr Ben Ali.
And although the minister was apparently unaware of the transactions, deliveries of tear gas grenades were made to Tunisia by a French company, with official clearance, during the earlier stages of the protests.
It was reported that her parents had bought a stake in a business owned by the same associate who provided air transport during the holiday.
The minister worsened her position with her combative and, according to the French press, misleading attempts to brush off the traces of scandal.
Newspapers accused her of adding "lies and untruths" to her mishandling of France's response to events in the Maghreb; But Miss Alliot-Marie seemed determined to ride out the storm.
"It is true that for several weeks there have been some controversies, rumours and attacks but I have explained that," she said on radio. "There were no illegal actions and no wrongdoing."
But leading members of the opposition socialist party were quick to condemn the minister.
Ségolène Royal, the defeated socialist candidate on the 2007 presidential elections, said Miss Alliot-Marie was copying Mr Sarkozy's approach of "building lies into the method of government" in a way that damaged the credibility of French international policy.
Another prominent socialist, François Hollande, said the president had to put an end to conduct that weakened France. "The diplomacy of France as a whole is lowered by the behaviour of (the minister)," he said.
Miss Alliot-Marie, who commands deep support at the heart of the ruling centre-right UMP party, said the attacks smacked of hypocrisy, citing the socialist party's own past cordial links with the Ben Ali regime.
But her hopes of survival were further jeopardised when a ministerial aide confirmed that despite earlier denials, she had a "brief telephone conversation" with Mr Ben Ali during her Tunisian holiday.