An expert's point of view on a current event.

Le Scandal

The Arab world's revolutions have exposed the moral bankruptcy of France's foreign policy.


The year in French foreign policy began rather well, with a feeling of a fresh start as the new minister of foreign affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, returned home rejuvenated from her Christmas holiday to provide renewed strength and focus at the Quai d’Orsay, the home of the ministry. As it turned out, neither her return, nor the vacation itself were such a great idea.

Two months into 2011, the transformation of North Africa has exposed a slew of moral failings in French policy in the Arab world, and raised a flurry of questions about Alliot-Marie’s ethics, judgment, and veracity. By Feb. 27, Alliot-Marie was gone, replaced in a cabinet reshuffle after less than four months in office. The rest of the French diplomatic corps is increasingly turning on the president as his Middle East policy continues to disintegrate.

It all began in Tunisia, a former French protectorate. If any country should have seen the first North African people’s revolution of the 21st century coming, it was France, Tunisia’s largest commercial partner and main lender. More than 22,000 French citizens live in Tunisia, and approximately 600,000 Tunisians live in France. Former strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was such a reliable ally throughout his 23-year reign that it seemed almost natural when French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to visit Tunisia on his first presidential trip outside the European Union.

Sarkozy, in a mea culpa of sorts, recently explained that France did not take "full measure of the hopelessness" of the Tunisian people because the two countries have been so intimate. "When you are so close, when the individual and collective destinies [of Tunisia and France] are so thoroughly intertwined," the French president told journalists at the Élysée presidential palace 10 days after Ben Ali and his family fled, "you can’t always have the necessary perspective."

The president’s rationale, though, feels a whole lot like damage control. For a country whose leaders often trumpet their commitment to universal human rights and social justice, the silence — following the street protests in Tunisia on Dec. 17, spurred by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi — spoke volumes. When Tunisian police initiated a series of violent crackdowns on protesters on Christmas Day, France didn’t complain. Worse, Alliot-Marie was vacationing with her husband (who is also a government minister) and her parents in Tunisia. In fact, it was only after 23 people were killed that any prominent French government official commented. But rather than denouncing or even mildly chastising Ben Ali, Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand denied on French television on Jan. 9 that Tunisia was an "unequivocal dictatorship." The next day, a spokesman at the Quai d’Orsay finally spoke, responding to a request from a journalist, to say — without putting any emphasis on responsibility — that France "deplores the violence and calls for calm."

At least 35 people had been killed by Jan. 11, when Alliot-Marie shockingly offered to bolster Ben Ali’s grip on power. She suggested to France’s Parliament that the world-renowned "savoir-faire of our security forces" allows for the "solving of security problems of this sort." (She later clarified that she meant to help control protesters without killing them, but the distinction was lost to many people in France and Tunisia.)

An array of opposition politicians called for her resignation. "Here is a people who rises up after 23 years of dictatorship, the police fire into the [crowd], and the only thing that the [French] government says is: ‘We are going to help you through police cooperation,’" said former prime minister and prominent Socialist Laurent Fabius on French radio. "It is one thing to have state-to-state relations. It is another to pat a dictator on the back."

It was only after Ben Ali fled into exile on Jan. 14 that French officials finally took the side of the Tunisian people. In Egypt, where relations were never as deep, France spoke cautiously of the potential terrorist threat, and it came around to supporting the Egyptian people before Hosni Mubarak gave up power. But in the case of Libya — whose leader of 42 years, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, was warmly welcomed by Sarkozy for a pomp-filled, five-day visit to Paris in 2007 — France stayed silent through six days of crackdowns during which an estimated 233 people were killed. Qaddafi’s promise to fight to the "last drop of blood" seems to have played a role in driving France to turn against him. Perhaps to make up for its slow and morally questionable responses in all three countries, the French government has since announced a push for EU travel and economic sanctions on Libyan officials, and Paris agreed to an Egyptian request to freeze assets linked to the Mubarak family.

The late recognition of the history-changing tide was, perhaps, to be expected. After all, France’s relations with its former colonies have long prioritized stability — especially opening doors for French business and military contracts, while also protecting geopolitical interests. France’s cynical actions in Africa in past decades, often via secret emissaries or old buddy networks, are so common that they have earned a special name: Françafrique. (While the term often refers to French conduct in its former colonies or in Francophone Africa, it ultimately expanded into other parts of the continent as well.) With its post-colonial connotations, Françafrique has long encompassed bribes, kickbacks, and other backroom deals by a cadre of well-connected French figures who engaged everywhere from Angola to the country formerly known as Zaire.

More recently, Sarkozy applied a sort of Françafrique-lite concept to Libya when he signed billions of dollars in industrial contracts with Qaddafi during the 2007 visit. As Libya’s leader pitched his Bedouin tent in Paris, widespread complaints rang out that France — along with Britain and especially Italy — was doing business with a terrorist who regularly abused his own people.

Perhaps the most notable example of Sarkozy’s complex and cozy relationship to Arab autocrats has been his high-profile project, the Union for the Mediterranean, which began (and seemed to end with) an extravagant gathering of leaders at Paris’s Grand Palais in 2008. The 43-nation group — including the 27 EU countries and 16 others on the Mediterranean — was Sarkozy’s effort to reinvigorate the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership on technical and political cooperation. Sarkozy ambitiously saw the union as both a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam and terrorism, and a means to alleviate poverty and immigration pressures from across the Mediterranean. One of its many problems, however, was that it relied on the support and involvement of prominent dictators who were entirely uninterested in reform. Sarkozy’s co-president in this "union" was Mubarak. (The union canceled its meetings in 2009 and 2010.)

But Qaddafi was just one of an array of Arab dictators whom Sarkozy set about wooing soon after his election. In some cases, the new president acted as a sort of personal spokesman for such leaders. Ben Ali held a dinner in Sarkozy’s honor in Tunisia in 2008 at which the French president spoke of the growing "free space" that was part of a "shift toward democracy" in Tunisia.

A 2007 U.S. Embassy cable obtained by WikiLeaks and later published by Le Monde quoted France’s ambassador to Tunis at the time, Serge Degallaix, as having said, "Tunisia is not a dictatorship," and paraphrased him as saying, "Its leaders genuinely listen to the country’s people." The cable also cited Degallaix as telling his American counterpart that "major changes in French policy toward Tunisia" are "unlikely" under Sarkozy.

The next French ambassador, Pierre Ménat, was pulled from Tunis in January, soon after the fall of Ben Ali. (In France, some active and former diplomats assert that Ménat was made into a scapegoat for Sarkozy’s close embrace of the Tunisian leader.) Although this might seem understandable, Sarkozy replaced him with a 41-year-old former advisor, Boris Boillon, who has often been referred to in the French media as a "Sarko boy" for his Sarkozy-like energy and way of talking. Within days of his arrival, Ambassador Boillon invited a number of Tunisian and French journalists to an introductory lunch and, in very undiplomatic fashion, grew aggressive with them, ultimately walking out. Video footage of the incident brought more than 500 Tunisian protesters to the gates of the French Embassy in Tunis to demand the withdrawal of the second French ambassador in two months. It didn’t help that a photo of a nearly naked (and surprisingly muscular) Boillon from the French social networking site, "Copains d’avant" (Buddies from Before) surfaced in France, further painting Boillon as a dubious choice by Sarkozy.

As Sarkozy’s foreign policy was crumbling this month, Alliot-Marie sought to regroup, announcing to foreign journalists in Paris on Feb. 9 that she wanted to create "honed diplomacy" in sync with the "needs of the contemporary world." But soon after Alliot-Marie had suggested helping Tunisian police in their crackdown on peaceful protesters and after it became clear that she had continued her vacation in Tunisia after the protests began, another damaging revelation emerged: She had accepted a pair of flights during that trip on the private aircraft of a wealthy Tunisian businessman, Aziz Miled, a partner of one of Ben Ali’s notoriously corrupt in-laws. In one particularly clumsy response to that burgeoning controversy, Alliot-Marie insisted, "When I am on vacation, I am not a minister." Then her office acknowledged reports that the vacationing minister had in fact briefly spoken with Ben Ali by phone while in Tunisia, just days before he fled the country. (She has not revealed the substance of that chat.)

Amid growing calls for her firing, Alliot-Marie’s immediate boss, Prime Minister François Fillon, pre-empted a news report and acknowledged on Feb. 8 that he spent his own Christmas vacation in Egypt, along with his family. Who footed the bill, which included an Egyptian government flight on a tourist excursion? The Mubarak regime. In response to such revelations, the prime minister cited similar trips to Egypt by Sarkozy himself, as well as the president’s two predecessors.

On Feb. 10, Sarkozy offered a parsed response to the revelations about the inopportune travels of his top ministers, arguing that no French public funds were diverted and that the country’s foreign policy was unaffected. "If I thought there had been a mistake, I would have taken action," the president said on French television. "Nonetheless the era has changed, and I understand that this can shock [people]. And so, this must change." (Members of his party promised new conflict-of-interest legislation for politicians soon.)

The revelations about Alliot-Marie, though, continued. On Feb. 16, the minister acknowledged yet another damaging French media report noting that her parents — who are both in their 90s — bought a substantial stake of a real estate company from that same Tunisian businessman. Her parents signed the deal in Tunisia over Christmas, reportedly paying Miled around $440,000.

The initial revelations, however, didn’t immediately seem to make Alliot-Marie toxic to her new counterparts. On Feb. 4, Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali minister of foreign affairs, Ahmed Abderraouf Ounaies, made his first trip abroad to Paris, where he met with his French counterpart. For whatever reason, the 75-year-old diplomat seemed strangely drawn to Alliot-Marie, fawning over her in a surreal spectacle. "I am happy to speak next to Michèle Alliot-Marie," he said at a joint news conference. "It is, for me, an honor. It was perhaps a little dream that I had, and that the speeding up of history" — i.e., the Tunisian revolution — "permitted me to live…. I love listening to Michèle Alliot-Marie, in any circumstance and in any platform," he continued, complimenting her "breadth of vision" and adding, "I know that you are above all, a friend of Tunisia."

But when Ounaies returned to Tunis, his own ministry staff went on strike to protest his comments. By mid-February, he had handed in his resignation. Amid this combination of absurdity and tragedy, an array of current and former French diplomats penned an anonymous open letter that was published in Le Monde on Feb. 22. The letter took Sarkozy to task for blaming his professional diplomatic corps for his own failures, particularly in not forecasting the falls of Ben Ali and Mubarak. "The policies pursued on Tunisia and Egypt were defined by the president of the Republic without taking into account the analysis of our embassies," the diplomats wrote. They went on to suggest that a French WikiLeaks would be able to show the truth: that French embassies criticized the North African regimes as much as their U.S. counterparts did.

By mid-February, Alliot-Marie, who was one of the government’s few truly popular ministers when she was appointed in August, faced polls showing that 54 percent of French people want her out. These sentiments highlight just how poor her judgment has been since arriving at the Quai d’Orsay — and this despite a remarkable ministerial trajectory that had her overseeing all of France’s power ministries (justice, interior, and defense). Finally, at the end of month, Sarkozy announced in a televised address that Alliot-Marie would be replaced by former prime minister Alain Juppé. The president avoided criticism of his problematic minister, instead portraying the move as a response to a "new era in our relations with these countries."

But ultimately France faces questions far greater than who occupies its top foreign policy post. The country’s leaders must ask themselves how they can overcome the moral bankruptcy laid bare by the tumult in the Arab world and how they might transform grandiose international rhetoric into a coherent and influential set of policies.

In their letter, the disgruntled diplomats suggested that Sarkozy’s foreign policy has consisted of little more than domestic political pandering, backroom dealing, and a shortsighted money chase to benefit French industry, at great geopolitical cost.

The ultimate result, they write, is that, "Europe is impotent, Africa is falling through our hands, the Mediterranean pays us no attention, China has tamed us, and Washington ignores us!" And if it needed a final punch, the anonymous diplomats added: "The voice of France has disappeared from the world."

Sarkozy now needs to act fast if he wishes it to be heard again.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated since publication to reflect changing events. 

Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.

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