French foreign affairs minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has come under intense pressure to resign following further revelations about her New Year's holidays with her partner and parents in strife-torn Tunisia, and which contradict her version hitherto of events.
The minister spent nine days in the Tunisian seaside resort of Tabarka between December 25th and January 2nd, accompanied by her partner and French minister responsible for relations with parliament, Patrick Ollier, and her parents Bernard, 92 and his spouse Renée. They stayed in a hotel owned by Mohamed Aziz Miled, a Tunisian businessman close to the disgraced Ben Ali regime, and whose private jet was also used by the party for transport on at least four occasions.
Mediapart this week revealed that during her sojourn amid the uprising she talked by phone with now-deposed president and despot Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Two weeks later, amid violent clashes between police and demonstrators across Tunisia, Alliot-Marie offered Ben Ali the "know-how" of French security forces to contain the crowds. He was overthrown and forced into exile shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, French investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné revealed this week that Alliot-Marie's father Bernard and his wife Renée used the holidays to buy into a property company run by Miled.
The continuing disclosures have shown Alliot-Marie to have consistently misled the French public and parliament in her comments about the nature of her controversial holidays, and her relationship with Miled, a member of the central committee of Ben Ali's ruling party. Here, Mathieu Magnaudeix returns to her different public statements and compares what she said with what has now been established.
"I never said that I wanted to send French police or gendarmes to Tunisia to help the regime maintain order": interview with French daily newspaper Le Parisien, January 30th.
Speaking before French parliament on January 11th, while the Ben Ali regime was attempting to suppress the widespread uprising in Tunisia, the French foreign minister gave a clear offer of help to the authorities in Tunis: "We propose that the know-how that is recognised throughout the world of our security forces can settle security situations of this type," she told MPs. "It is the reason why we propose to the two countries[...] to act along these lines so that the right to demonstrate can be exercised while ensuring security."
During the interview with Le Parisien on January 30th, just as in a separate earlier interview broadcast on the France 2 public television channel on January 17th, she insisted that her parliamentary speech had been misunderstood. During the TV interview, the minister appeared embarrassed, and her explanation awkward (click on picture below to reach a separate page then click button on screen to play - in French only).
In the interview she gave to Le Parisien published January 30th, it was put to Alliot-Marie that "Your proposition to help the Tunisian police has been widely criticized. [In Tunisia] , also it raised a storm." She answered: "This phrase was not understood. No doubt it was badly worded. Some people wanted to give my words an interpretation that was contrary to what I thought. Let's be clear, I never said that I wanted to send French police or gendarmes to Tunisia to help the regime maintain order. It is impossible on a judicial basis, on a moral basis and is quite simply absurd."
So why did she make the offer to the Ben Ali regime of of lending French "know-how" in maintaining security? Was it possible that she was asked for help during her sojourn in the country between December 25th and January 2nd? Mediapart revealed this week that she held a phone conversation with President Ben Ali during her holidays, although the subjects raised remain unknown.
Information obtained by Mediapart indicates that Alliot-marie arrived in Tunisia on December 25th and left on January 2nd. The self-immolation of 26 year-old Mohamed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid occurred on December 17th. The desperate act, which sparked an uprising that led to the revolution, followed the confiscation by police of Bouazizi's illegal street stall of fruit and vegetables. The unemployed graduate, who doused himself in petrol immediately after the event, died in a hospital near Tunis on January 4th.
His self-immolation was copied by other unemployed students in the central regions of Tunisia, which had been left on the wayside of the economic development for which Ben Ali was often lauded by the international community. Several of these occurred during Alliot-Marie's holidays in the country. She told France 2 that, during her stay, "there was no problem, there was no repression." However, on December 24th, the day before she arrived, two men were fatally wounded by police during demonstrations near to Sidi Bouzid.
By December 25th, the revolts had erupted into violent clashes in the towns of Sidi Bouzid, Menzel Bouzaiene, al-Ragab, Miknassi, Kairouan, Sfax and Ben Guerdane. The capital Tunis witnessed its first major demonstrations on December 27th. On December 28th, President Ben Ali warned those taking part in the widespread demonstrations, who he described as "extremists", that "the law will be rigorously applied against them".
"I had no privileged contact with him [Ben Ali]": Interview with Le Parisien, January 30th.
Alliot Marie told Le Parisien: "The last time that I saw the former president, face to face, was in 2006, during my functions as Minister of Defence." What is certain is that Alliot-Marie held a phone conversation with the dictator while holidaying in Tabarka, as confirmed to Mediapart by the French foreign ministry on February 15th.
Aziz Miled is "more a victim than anything else" of the Ben Ali regime: Interview on France 2 TV channel, February 2nd.
After her holiday in Tabarka and the use of Tunisian businessman Mohamed Aziz Miled's jet was revealed , the French foreign minister defended herself by suggesting that Miled had been despoiled by the Ben Ali regime. This was repeated by both her foreign ministry spokesmen, and by her partner Patrick Ollier, a French government minister responsible for relations with parliament, who accompanied her on the Tunisian holiday.
However, this hardly meets the truth. Miled, a millionaire entrepreneur who made his fortune in tourism, was a key figure in the country's economy. A rags-to-riches tycoon, he began his career as a travel agent to become head of a major tourism company, Tunisia Travel Service, and an airline, Nouvelair. He was a a member of the central committee of Ben Ali's ruling RCD party, and a signatory to an August 2010 public call for the re-election Ben Ali in elections that were due in 2014. He was a a member of Ben Ali's ‘re-election committee' from at least 1999. In 2009, he was decorated by Ben Ali with the ‘Grand Cordon of the Order of November 7th', the highest rank in pompous yearly civil decorations celebrating the strongman's arrival as president in November 1987. His ties with the former regime led to the freeze of his assets in Switzerland in January, although the measure has now been lifted.
While Miled began his business activities before the arrival in power of Ben Ali in 1987, he became one of the very few Tunisian entrepreneurs to have shared activities - in finance, tourism and aviation - with members of the Ben Ali clan, notably the Trabelsi, Materi, Chiboub and Mabrouk families. (For a description of the clan penned by the US ambassador to Tunisia, Robert F. Godec, and revealed by WikiLeaks, click here).
Mediapart has learnt that Miled chose to name his aviation transport business Nouvelair in order to please Ben Ali: the name, in French, means New Air, but its pronunciation in French is the same as ‘New Era'. As of 1989, he was a contributor to Ben Ali's election campaign funds. He is believed to have contributed 500,000 Tunisian dinars (258, 645 euros) for the last Ben Ali election campaign, in 2009. Unconfirmed reports say he contributed a vast sum for a fireworks celebration following Ben Ali's re-election that year.
The jet in which Miled transported Alliot-Marie during her stay in Tunisia was in fact used mostly by Belhassen Trabelsi, brother of Ben Ali's wife Leila Trabelsi, as indicated by its registration details, TS-IBT. On January 14th, the plane played an important role in the exodus of the Ben Ali family.
Aziz Miled "at no moment put his plane at [my] disposition": Alliot-Marie answering MPs' questions before French parliament on February 2nd.
Alliot-Marie told French Members of Parliament: "Finally, as concerns the problem you raise of the plane, I just want to say one thing. Arriving in Tunis after Christmas, a friend who was travelling to Tabarka, our final destination spot, did indeed suggest to me that I travel with him instead of completing the two hours by car. He at no moment put his plane at disposition, I accompanied him only during the 20 minutes of the trip."
On the evening of February 2nd, the minister gave this same version of a chance encounter with Aziz during an interview with her on the France 2 TV channel: "He said to me, given that I had to travel from Tunis to Tabarka, where there is no flight connection during the winter, he said to me [sic] ‘I must go to my hotel in Tabarka, I have a plane', his private plane that has 12 seats. He says ‘I am all alone, would you like to accompany me rather than go two hours by car?'".
Following new revelations of her holidays published February 5th. on nouvelobs.com, website of weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, her ministry confirmed that Alliot-Marie had in fact also used the jet on December 29th for a return day trip to Tozeur, in the centre-west of the country. In a second interview with Le Parisien on February 7th, Alliot-Marie admitted also using the jet to return to Tunis at the end of her holiday in Tabarka. According to information reveived by Mediapart, the plane left Tunis empty to pick up Alliot-Marie and her family in Tabarka.
According to Alliot-Marie's statements in public, her relationship with Aziz Miled is nothing other than one of friendship. On the Europe 1 French commercial radio station she said of her holidays in Tunisia: "I was knackered [...] I relaxed and I saw only contacts who were friends. Yes, OK, this is possible, and I profoundly regret it."
Once again, the argument she gave is somewhat economical with the facts. This week, the Canard Enchaîné, in its edition published February 15th revealed that, during her holidays, her parents signed an investment agreement with Miled to buy up shares reportedly worth more than 300,000 euros in his property development company Ikram.
"If I sometimes take holidays in Tunisia, it is at my expense, the trip and the hotel": Alliot-Marie speaking before French parliament February 2nd.
Nothing until now has been presented to show that the minister did indeed pay her own expenses during her family holiday at the Tabarka Beach Hotel, as is what she claimed before MPs during a French parliament session on February 2nd.
Alliot-Marie has said that she paid for the plane tickets to and from Tunisia, and her parents offered the hotel accommodation. The ministry has so far refused to communicate the amount paid for the hotel. It is therefore unknown whether the minister's party paid the normal rate or a subsidized one, nor is it possible to establish with certainty that they were not quite simply invited for a free stay by Aziz Miled.
Mediapart reporters who travelled to Tabarka and who approached personnel at the hotel were met with silence. It appeared likely they have been told not to talk to the press.
English version: Graham Tearse