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For France, Tunisia is another diplomatic black eye

As the crisis unfolded in its former colony, Paris was caught entirely off guard, recalling recent stumbles in Haiti and Ivory Coast.

January 22, 2011|By Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Paris — Whither now French diplomacy? A week after Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali fled into exile, France has acknowledged being caught off guard by the protest movement that led to the ouster of an autocratic ruler it had supported for 23 years.

The government's failure to sense where the rapidly unfolding crisis was heading — including its offer to help prop up Ben Ali just three days before he was overthrown — is seen as an embarrassment in a nation that, whether through hubris or for good reason, prides itself on its diplomatic savoir-faire.

Since taking office in 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been keen for France to punch above its weight class on the world stage. He has successfully courted Washington, wooed Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi. In 2008 he claimed credit for brokering peace in Russia's conflict with Georgia, then headed a successful Mediterranean summit of 43 nations, many of them squabbling Arab countries.

But in places it used to rule — Tunisia, Ivory Coast and Haiti — France has stumbled badly in recent weeks, reviving uncomfortable memories of its mishandling of crises in Algeria, where it was once the colonial master, and Rwanda, where Sarkozy last year acknowledged his nation's errors of judgment that failed to prevent mass killings in 1994.

The Tunisian debacle has prompted questions at the highest levels of state.

"There could have been some clumsiness or lack of understanding," Henri Guaino, Sarkozy's close advisor, acknowledged.

"What could we do? Nobody could have foreseen that things would go so quickly, go so far or become so rapidly dramatic," Guaino told French radio. "Anyway, it's not for France to be the policeman of the Mediterranean."

Yet even after Washington tacitly threw its support behind the protest movement and European Union representatives complained that France's dithering prevented a unified response to the crisis, France failed to jump.

Only as the Tunisian president was on his way out did Paris perform a belated about-face; Sarkozy refused Ben Ali asylum. But it was 24 more hours before any French official mentioned the word "democracy" as a good thing for Tunisia.

"Overall the French have been agnostic, along the lines of 'better the dictator you know than the dictator you don't,' " one unnamed EU official told journalists.

France's foreign policy has long placed pragmatism over idealism, and Tunisia proved no exception. With an estimated 600,000 Tunisians in France and a lucrative flow of French tourists to Tunisia, the French leaders were reluctant to upset the status quo.

Neither Sarkozy nor his predecessors made a secret of their support for Ben Ali. Former President Jacques Chirac thought the Tunisian leader brought stability.

Dominique Moisi, special advisor to the French Institute of International Relations, said Tunisia had shown once again how France's diplomatic corps was not good at dealing with "drastic change."

"It was the same when the Berlin Wall came down and when communism fell 20 years ago, and France was very slow to react. French diplomacy is more at ease with the status quo, and at moments of great change tends to be overtaken by events."

Some officials have contended that France's reaction in Tunisia was based on a policy of noninterference in sovereign states. Critics say: Would that it were so.

France has had no such qualms with Ivory Coast, where about 900 French troops support the United Nations force. When Laurent Gbagbo, president of the former French colony, refused to hand over power after his election defeat in December, Sarkozy ordered him to stand down and threatened international sanctions.

Sarkozy's bullish rhetoric handed ammunition to Gbagbo supporters, who saw it as further evidence of Françafrique, a byword for French meddling in Francophone African countries.

Then, as French diplomats were brushing the flak over Tunisia from their suits, another blow fell: news that former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier had stepped on a plane in Paris, made a stop in Guadeloupe, a French territory, and then flown to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, without, officials insist, anyone in the French administration being alerted.

"We never at any moment or by whatever manner received any information whatsoever of this initiative by Mr. Duvalier to go to Port-au-Prince," a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

But not everyone believes that.

Jean-Marie Bourjolly, a representative of President Clinton's Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, told the Toronto Star it was scarcely credible for Duvalier to have taken a plane without French officials knowing. "It looks suspicious to me," he said.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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