French foreign minister in Tunisia to rebuild ties

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French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe offered 350 million euros ($508 million) in aid to Tunisia Wednesday as he sought to rebuild ties strained by French missteps during the country's popular uprising.

"I know very well that there may have been some delays or some misunderstandings between France and Tunisia. I believe that all of that is behind us," Juppe said during a visit to the former French colony, after meeting with interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi.

"The most important and essential thing is that this relationship between our two countries is old and deep on all levels," he said.

France was criticised in Tunisia and domestically for its slow and confused response to the country's popular revolt, which saw former strongman president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ousted amid street protests on January 14.

Just days before Ben Ali's fall, Juppe's predecessor Michele Alliot-Marie shocked Tunisian democrats by suggesting France could help train Tunisia's hated security forces to help them better control the popular uprising against his rule.

Alliot-Marie was later forced to resign following revelations linking her family to a businessman allegedly close to Ben Ali's regime who had provided her with free plane rides during a December holiday while the uprising was under way.

Juppe went out of his way during the visit to praise the uprising and the country's new interim government, hailing "the great movement that was launched from Tunis and is now shaking the Arab world."

He also expressed France's "admiration and respect" for the country, "because it takes courage to shake off an authoritarian police regime."

He said France would provide the 350 million euros in aid in 2011-2012 and that it would be quickly disbursed for government projects linked to training, unemployment and governance.

"France deeply hopes to see this movement succeed" and stands "beside Tunisia on every level, political and economic," he said.

Juppe also insisted that France remained open to migrants from Tunisia despite a controversy over France's refusal to automatically accept Tunisian migrants granted temporary residence permits after arriving in Italy.

"France is not a closed country. We welcome 200,000 foreigners every year. The Tunisian community is 500,000 strong, including 13,000 students. The rate of visa refusal is 10 percent," he said.

"France is neither a citadel nor a fortress. But at the same time we cannot accept illegal immigration. It's a scourge," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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