Nicolas Sarkozy today admitted he had underestimated the anger of the Tunisian people and the protest movement that ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
France’s support for the dictator right up to the moment he fled has caused outrage in Tunisia and weakened the former colony’s diplomatic standing in the region.
During weeks of protests which were met with violence by Tunisian security forces, French ministers made comments in favour of the authoritarian regime. Even as human rights groups condemned murders carried out by Tunisian police, the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said France would lend its own police “knowhow” to help Ben Ali’s forces maintain order.
As the death toll rose, the French culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, said Tunisia was not an “unequivocal dictatorship” and the agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, said Ben Ali had “done a lot for his country”.
On Monday, as Tunisian police fired teargas to disperse protesters outside government offices in the capital, Tunis, Sarkozy tried to draw a line under the criticism of France, promising emergency financial aid to Tunisia’s interim government.
He said France was so close to Tunisia that it had been unable to stand back and see the situation clearly. “Behind the emancipation of women, the drive for education and training, the economic dynamism, the emergence of a middle class, there was a despair, a suffering, a sense of suffocation. We have to recognise that we underestimated it,” Sarkozy said.
A former colonial power should never “make judgements” on the internal workings of countries that once made up its empire, he added.
But the French president fell short of a full mea culpa. When asked why France had stayed silent as the number of protester deaths mounted, Sarkozy looked riled and said that was an “exaggeration”. He said Tunisian opposition leaders had been allowed to live in France, except some Islamists who moved to London after Paris refused them residency.
Sarkozy’s comments came during his first set-piece press conference in three years, a highly choreographed exercise in presidential style that harks back to the era of Charles de Gaulle.
Under the chandeliers of the Palais de l’Elysée’s salle des fêtes, he set out his agenda for France’s leadership of the G20, saying the world’s top economies must agree new measures to curb the volatility of commodity markets or food riots could grip the developing world. He also vowed to push for a tax on financial transactions, saying this was a “moral issue” which had a lot of “enemies”.
The press conference was part of the beleaguered Sarkozy’s attempt to appear more poised and presidential in the run-up to a difficult battle for re-election next year.
He toned down his jumpy body language, with less twitching of the shoulders and more calm cuff-pulling in the style of Prince Charles. His last set-piece press conference in 2008 had descended into farce as he mused about his romance with the model and singer Carla Bruni, saying “it’s serious”. – guardian.co.uk