French minister fights off calls to resign over Tunisia

2nd February 2011, Comments 0 comments

France's foreign minister fought off calls to resign over alleged links to Tunisia's ousted leader on Wednesday after a report that the owner of a private jet she used was close to his regime.

The allegations raised pressure on the minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, following France's U-turn over Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after he bowed to popular protests and fled Tunisia last month.

Alliot-Marie admitted she and her family accepted a flight on a jet owned by Tunisian businessman Aziz Miled, but denied he was close to Ben Ali, as the investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine had reported.

Miled's name is on a public list of people subject to an assets freeze by Swiss authorities, as an associate of Ben Ali's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi.

Alliot-Marie angrily rejected the newspaper report as "lies" and insisted there were was no question of her resigning "over false claims, mere assertions," in comments to reporters after a cabinet meeting.

"I only reply about these things because I don't like people telling lies about me," she said.

She said she had accepted a flight during a holiday in late December last year -- after the start of protests against Ben Ali -- but denied the tycoon was a close associate of the then-dictator.

"On my arrival in Tunis, a friend who was going to Tabarka with his plane offered to take us with him rather than spend two hours in a car as planned," she said, referring to Miled.

"He did not lend us his plane, we accompanied him on his journey."

She denied that Miled was close to the former ruling regime, insisting that on the contrary he was a "a victim of the Ben Ali clan" and had his airline "plundered" by Trabelsi.

The affair nevertheless sparked a prompt call for her to resign from several opposition Socialists, including their parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault. "She no longer has any place in government," he said.

Alliot-Marie has been a government minister for eight years, named to head the foreign ministry last month after terms at the justice and defence ministries.

Last month, when rights groups were already reporting that Tunisia's hated police had fired on unarmed protesters and shot dead dozens, Alliot-Marie suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.

It later emerged that France had approved the export of police equipment to Tunisia at the height of the violence.

"She must explain herself," said Ayrault, alleging that Alliot-Marie had failed to detail the full extent of France's police cooperation with Tunisia.

"I would like her to explain why she did not tell us the truth about the deliveries of police equipment including the tear gas canisters when people had already been killed in Tunisia," he said on RTL radio.

"I don't know how she can stay in her job, because France is being penalised in this affair."

President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted last week that France had underestimated the anger of the Tunisian people at Ben Ali's regime.

France had warm ties with him during his 23 years in power but after he was driven out, Sarkozy backed the protest movement. The fugitive ex-leader was denied refuge in France and went instead to Saudi Arabia.

© 2011 AFP

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