France's outgoing elegant, scandal-prone foreign minister

27th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Michele Alliot-Marie, expected to lose her job Sunday as France's first ever woman foreign minister, is a member of the conservative establishment known for her elegant suits and straight talk.

Alliot-Marie's departure after barely three months in the job is the price to pay for France's bad diplomatic decisions and some of her own personal ones in the revolt-shaken Arab world and comes after a long and scandal-free career.

MAM, as she is universally known, became embroiled in recent weeks in a series of scandals over her controversial links to Tunisia, where she took a holiday during its popular uprising.

Subsequent revelations about her and her family's links to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and her offer for France to help riot police quell the uprising there, made her position increasingly untenable.

It emerged that she had holidayed in former French colony during the uprising, using the private jet of a businessman allegedly linked to Ben Ali's regime, from whom her parents also bought a stake in a company.

Faced with rising criticism, she fatefully said: "When I am on holiday, I am not foreign minister."

Nevertheless, when she took over the job from former left-wing humanitarian Bernard Kouchner in November, she was considered a highly experienced politician whose task it was to redress French diplomacy after Kouchner's occasionally emotional and instinctive time in office.

Alliot-Marie, 64, had a good track record after successively holding the portfolios of defence (2002-2007) -- the first woman to do so -- as well as interior (2007-2009) and justice (2009-2010).

In another first, she and her "life partner" Patrick Ollier became the first couple to sit together in a French cabinet, when he was named minister of parliamentary affairs at the same time as she became foreign minister.

As defence minister, she travelled to some of the world's most sensitive hot-spots, where her "army-cut" trousers drew humorists' jibes, as did her occasionally wooden speech.

But she won the respect of the country's top brass -- travelling extensively to view French troop deployments in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa.

She was also credited with persuading a military establishment that is highly loyal to the nation state to pool resources inside a European defence structure.

Born in 1946 into a traditional Gaullist family, she imbibed politics from an early age and was introduced to her future mentor Jacques Chirac by her father, who was a member of parliament, mayor of the southwestern resort of Biarritz and an international rugby referee.

After training as a lawyer, she worked in the backrooms of Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party before winning a seat in the National Assembly in 1986. The same year she won her first ministerial post as secretary of state for education under Chirac's premiership.

Alliot-Marie overcame the misogyny prevailing in the clubby world of Gaullist politics by force of personality and constant networking around the country.

But MAM is pilloried in the left-wing press as a classic member of the Catholic bourgeoisie, with her smart suits and neat hair.

And she is certainly no conventional feminist, pointedly refusing to call herself "la ministre" -- with the feminine article -- preferring instead the more correct "le".

© 2011 AFP

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