New Tunisia allegations hit French minister
France's foreign minister faced fresh pressure Sunday over alleged links to the regime of Tunisia's ousted dictator, after new revelations about her holidays there during the uprising against him.
The minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, had last week fended off calls to resign after admitting she flew in a private plane at the invitation of a Aziz Miled, a businessman allegedly close to relations of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But the calls were reignited Sunday after the Nouvel Observateur magazine published details of a second plane trip during her December holiday, when the uprising that eventually deposed Ben Ali was already underway.
The magazine reported that, having flown to the resort of Tabarka as already revealed, Alliot-Marie and her family flew to the oasis town of Tozeur days later, in the same private plane belonging to Miled's airline Nouvelair.
Alliot-Marie, 64, on Saturday maintained she had done nothing wrong and rejected the affair as a "totally artificial controversy". Her government has thrown its support behind her.
"I will be very careful now. I don't know where I will go for my holidays," she joked wryly on France Info radio.
Her defenders say her holidays are a private matter, but her critics insist a minister should at all times be careful to remain above suspicion.
"You are still a minister of the Republic, whether you are on holiday or on business," said the leader of the opposition Socialists in the lower house of parliament, Jean-Marc Ayrault, reiterating an earlier call for her to resign.
"It is improper" for a foreign minister to holiday in a country where a popular uprising is underway, he told France Info radio. "In other countries, such as Anglo-Saxon countries, she would have resigned long ago."
One of Alliot-Marie's colleagues, Henri de Raincourt, minister for overseas cooperation, told France Info: "When you are a member of the government, just as when you are elected, it is clearly a full-time role.
"Nevertheless I don't see why a member of government does not have a right to a private life and a rest."
Miled was alleged to be close to Ben Ali's brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi. Miled had been on a list of names targeted by sanctions by Swiss authorities, but was removed from it when a new version was issued on Friday.
Alliot-Marie denied Miled was close to Ben Ali's regime, insisting that on the contrary his business was targeted by it.
France had warm ties with Ben Ali during his 23 years in power but just after he was driven out, President Nicolas Sarkozy backed the protest movement and denied him refuge in France.
Last month, when rights groups were reporting that Tunisia's hated police had shot dead dozens of unarmed protesters, Alliot-Marie caused an outcry when she suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.
© 2011 AFP