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French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie talks to French journalist Michel Denisot during the TV show Le Grand Journal. The minister was accused yesterday of taking a flight in the private jet of a Tunisian businessman allegedly close to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie talks to French journalist Michel Denisot during the TV show Le Grand Journal. The minister was accused yesterday of taking a flight in the private jet of a Tunisian businessman allegedly close to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

French foreign minister in trouble over Ben Ali links

French Socialists demand Michele Alliot-Marie's dismissal over her ties with associate of the ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the businessman Aziz Miled.

French politicians have a way of getting embarrassed when a friendly regime collapses, and the fall of Tunisia's ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali is now roiling the country's politics.

After facing criticism over the government's slow response to the Tunisian crisis, the French foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, is under fire for having been jetted around late last year by an alleged associate of the Ben Ali clan.

The foreign minister on Wednesday rejected opposition demands that she resign over the issue saying, "there was no problem".

In a heated exchange in parliament, she dismissed the controversy over what she described as a 20-minute plane ride with the businessman Aziz Miled when she was on holiday in Tunisia between Christmas and the new year.

Trying to avoid the kind of criticism that it faced over Tunisia, France issued a joint statement on Egypt yesterday with the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. "The Egyptian people must be able to exercise freely their right to peaceful assembly, and enjoy the full protection of the security forces," said the statement. It also called for political reform, saying "the transition must start now".

The uproar over Mrs Alliot-Marie's trip to Tunisia comes as France is gearing up for presidential elections next year and with President Nicolas Sarkozy remaining deeply unpopular. He acknowledged last week that he and his government had misread the Tunisian situation.

The opposition Socialist Party has responded by sending a delegation to Tunisia this week. The party said in a statement that it was "to support the democratic process started by the Tunisian revolution".

The Socialists also demand Mrs Alliot-Marie's dismissal over her ties with Mr Miled. "The foreign minister is totally disqualified as of now to represent France," said senior party member Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchainé asserted this week that Mr Miled was close to Belhassan Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of Mr Ben Ali. Mrs Alliot-Marie called the claims "lies" and said that, on the contrary, Mr Miled had suffered financially under the old regime.

The revelations may not be on the same scale as those by the same newspaper some 30 years ago when it said that the then French president Valerie Giscard d'Estaing had received gifts of diamonds from the self-styled emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who had recently been overthrown.

But this week's revelations come as the foreign minister is also under fire for having said in January, as the Ben Ali regime was battling protesters, that France would continue to provide the government with anti-riot equipment, including tear gas. Her remarks provoked anger in parliament at the time.

While Mrs Alliot-Marie has said that people read too much into her words, the prime minister, François Fillon, confirmed this week that ministerial approval was given for the shipment of tear gas to Tunisia as late as January 17, just two days before Mr Ben Ali fled the country. But no equipment was actually shipped during that period, he said.

The French government has since tried to counter its image as a friend of the dictator by opening an investigation into the assets of the Ben Ali clan. This week the authorities seized a jet that was said to belong to the Mabrouk family, related to Mr Ben Ali by marriage.

The seizure was "mostly symbolic", Maud Perdriel-Vaissière who heads Sherpa, a French NGO campaigning against international corruption, said yesterday.

"Compared to all the other assets, a plane is not much. But we hope that it is the beginning of other seizures."

Sherpa and two other NGOs last week filed a suit in France accusing Mr Ben Ali and his associates of corruption, misusing public funds and money-laundering totalling US$5 billion (Dh18.35bn).

Mrs Perdriel-Vaissière said that the group was also monitoring developments in Egypt, noting that President Hosni Mubarak has been reported to have amassed a fortune of close to $50 billion.

"If true, that's in the order of the regime of former president Suharto in Indonesia, one of the greatest kleptocracies ever," she said.

In Algeria, like Tunisia a former French colony, there are signs that the government is bracing for more protests and is looking for ways to take the sting out of opposition demands. Algeria's state of emergency, in force for the past 19 years, will be lifted in the very near future, state media quoted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as saying yesterday.

Mr Bouteflika also said, at a meeting with ministers, that the government should adopt new measures to promote job creation and that Algerian television and radio, which are controlled by the state, should give airtime to all political parties.

Mr Bouteflika said protest marches, banned under the state of emergency, would be permitted everywhere except in the capital. Political parties must respect the law to ensure freedom does not degenerate into anarchy, he said.


* With additional reporting by Reuters

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