France speaks out after citizen killed in Tunisia

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France broke its silence on the bloody revolt in Tunisia on Thursday, speaking out to condemn the state's "disproportionate use of violence" after one of its own citizens died during a protest.

"We are extremely concerned by the violence that has developed in recent days. We urgently call on all parties to show restraint, to choose the path of dialogue," France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters in London.

"We cannot continue with this disproportionate use of violence," he added, in the strongest reaction so far from Tunisia's former colonial power, after a week in which Paris' caution has contrasted with mounting global concern.

One of the protesters shot dead during marches in Tunisia held joint French and Tunisian nationality, officials and a close relation said Thursday, as the death toll there hit 66 and threatened to climb still higher.

Hatem Bettahar, a 38-year-old lecturer in computing at the University of Technology in Compiegne, was one of two protesters killed by Tunisian police on Wednesday in the southern town of Douz, a witness there said.

"He is Franco-Tunisian. We had a call from the French consulate in Tunisia this morning. We're devastated," Elhem Ghorbel, the victim's sister-in-law, told AFP by telephone from her home in northern France.

Bettahar's teaching union said he had worked in France for 10 years.

The death of a citizen increased pressure on France's government to speak out against the Tunisian government's deadly crackdown on the anti-government protests that erupted last week in towns across the country.

"Our embassy and our consulate are fully mobilised to determine the exact circumstances of the death of our compatriot and have contacted the Tunisian authorities," said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

Asked whether the foreign ministry condemned the Tunisian police's use of live rounds against unarmed protesters, the spokesman did not respond.

The French government has close ties with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's authoritarian regime and had been slow to join a mounting international chorus of criticism of its tactics.

There are 22,000 French citizens in Tunisia, two-thirds of them with double Franco-Tunisian nationality, and several senior French politicians have close personal ties to the country or were born there.

Government officials have argued that, as the former colonial power, France ought not to speak out too loudly for fear of being accused of interfering in Tunisia's sovereign affairs.

But as the death toll has increased, the left wing opposition has become more vocal, with Socialist leaders urging President Nicolas Sarkozy to speak out against what one senior lawmaker dubbed a "corrupt police state." sb-bur-jlv/dc/ga

© 2011 AFP

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