French PM stands by embattled foreign minister over Tunisia

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France's prime minister on Tuesday stood by his foreign minister who last week suggested that French security "know-how" could help Tunisia's now-ousted president quell anti-government riots.

"I would first like to express my entire confidence in Michele Alliot-Marie and regret the dishonest exploitation you make of her remarks," Francois Fillon told parliament in answer to a question from an opposition Socialist deputy.

Foreign Minister Alliot-Marie earlier Tuesday herself fought off criticism of France's reaction to the popular uprising that ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Opponents of President Nicolas Sarkozy's government had criticised its silence at the height of the protests against Ben Ali in the former French colony, in which scores died amid a fierce crackdown by security forces.

"France did not see these events coming, any more than anyone else did," Alliot-Marie said of the uprising that finally forced Ben Ali into exile on Friday after 23 years of his authoritarian rule.

Alliot-Marie defended her statement at the height of the protests that France could offer know-how to the hated Tunisian security forces.

Critics had interpreted that as endorsing a violent crackdown on the protests, and some had called for her resignation.

"I am scandalised that certain people have tried to distort my comments," she told lawmakers at a hearing, insisting on her "sensitivity to the suffering of the Tunisian people."

"I was distressed by the firing of live rounds on a number of protestors and the casualties this caused."

Despite concerns about Ben Ali's human rights record in the north African state, French leaders during his rule praised Tunisia's economic development and saw him as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

The French government turned against him only after the weeks of protest finally forced him into exile on Friday, barring him from landing in France.

It said granting him exile would upset the hundreds of thousands of French residents of Tunisian origin.

"Until the last minute, France was behind Ben Ali," said a French Communist Party lawmaker, Jean-Paul Lecoq, at the lawmakers' hearing on Tuesday.

Another, Socialist Gaetan Gorce, complained to Alliot-Marie: "Nowhere in your declarations was there a condemnation of the violence."

© 2011 AFP

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