French minister defensive over Tunisian nationality

20th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

France's culture minister acknowledged Thursday that the authoritarian regime of Tunisia's deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had given him Tunisian nationality in a bid to win his support.

"I obtained Tunisian nationality. It was given to me," said the minister, Frederic Mitterrand.

"No doubt perhaps the regime was trying to win me over by giving me Tunisian nationality, but I never made any compromise, none," added Mitterrand, in the latest move by French ministers to defend France's ties with Ben Ali.

Mitterrand said he received Tunisian nationality in the 1990s after organising a year of Tunisian cultural celebrations in France.

France had warm ties with Ben Ali's regime during his 23 years in power but made an embarrassing U-turn after the authoritarian ruler last week bowed to popular protests and fled the country.

It was not until after Ben Ali was driven out that French President Nicolas Sarkozy backed the protest movement and he was denied refuge in France, which throughout his rule had praised his economic management.

Last week, when rights groups were already reporting police had shot dead dozens of protesters, Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon this week defended Alliot-Marie against criticisms over those comments.

Days earlier, also during the crackdown on the protests, Mitterrand had said it was "totally exaggerating" to brand Ben Ali's regime a dictatorship.

Rights groups regularly accused the regime of abuses and media censorship.

"Until just before the massacres, I thought like many people the best way to protect those I care about, which means all the Tunisian people, particularly the opposition, was not to turn on a regime whose authoritarian nature I knew perfectly well," Mitterrand said Thursday.

Separately, the French government said on Thursday it had detected "suspicious" transactions involving funds held by Ben Ali's family in France.

Government financial monitoring authorities "informed me of suspicious movements of funds, not necessarily attempts at evasion or withdrawal," Budget Minister Francois Baroin said on LCI television.

"A bank noticed transactions that were above permitted limits," he added, without giving further details.

© 2011 AFP

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