What US cables reveal about France and the Ben Ali regime

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French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has been forced to resign after a series of revelations over her close ties with the entourage of deposed Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. After a luxurious holiday in Tunisia during the popular uprising then sweeping the country, she later offered French security "know-how" to the desperate Ben Ali regime during its last days in power. But Alliot-Marie was far from alone in her disinterest of the dire human rights abuses exacted under Ben Ali's 23-year reign, as confirmed by US diplomatic cables revealed exclusively here. In this first report following Mediapart's newly-reached partnership with WikiLeaks, we detail how official French policy towards Tunis has for years placed bi-lateral security issues well above concerns for democracy.

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French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was forced to resign on Sunday, after a series of revelations over her close ties with the entourage of deposed Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. After a luxurious holiday in Tunisia during the popular uprising then sweeping the country, she later offered French security "know-how" to the desperate Ben Ali regime during its last days in power. But Alliot-Marie was far from alone in her disinterest of the dire human rights abuses exacted under Ben Ali's 23-year reign. As confirmed by US diplomatic cables, revealed exclusively here (see Black Box bottom of page), official French policy towards Tunis has for years placed bi-lateral security issues well above concerns for democracy. Pierre Puchotand Audrey Vucher report.

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"Tunisia is not a dictatorship." That was the analysis made in August 2007 by the then-French ambassador to Tunis, Serge Degallaix. Revealed by WikiLeaks in a series of cables published here by Mediapart, it succinctly sums up France's position towards the regime of now-deposed ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

It demonstrates how, under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France, Tunisia's major political and trading partner, blindly abdicated from pursuing any ambitious policies to promote democratic principles and respect for human rights.

The WikiLeaks cable revelations now unveil the details and the manner in which French officials viewed Tunisia. The cables originated from the United States' embassies in Paris and Tunis. In August 2007, during a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Robert F. Godec, ambassador Degallaix, posted to Tunis from September 2005 to September 2009, gave a particularly optimistic appraisal of the situation there (cable 118839). Godec's cable states that according to the French ambassador to Tunis, "‘Tunisia is not a dictatorship" and its leaders "genuinely listen to the country's people". Serge Degallaix further said, according to the cables, that Ben Ali and his government "want to open up" the regime, but explained their hesitations to do so because of fears that this might open the door to Islamic fundamentalists.

Degallaix described French President Nicolas Sarkozy's first visit to Tunisia on July 10th and 11th, 2007, as "excellent" but insisted that while major changes in French policy towards Tunisia were "unlikely," some differences in style could be forthcoming, the cables said. Any changes, however, did not apply to the area of human rights. Although Sarkozy did raise the subject in a meeting with Ben Ali "in an appropriate way," according to Degallaix, it was the Tunisian president who first mentioned the fate of Mohammed Abbou, the political prisoner most in the headlines at that time, the cable reported. Sentenced to three and a half years in jail for having published information that would disturb public order and for broadcasting false information, the lawyer and human rights advocate was finally released Tuesday, July 24th, 2007, after two and a half years of detention.

Contacted by Mediapart in a telephone interview, Degallaix was asked if telling the newly-appointed U.S. ambassador, in August 2007, that Ben Ali's Tunisia was not a dictatorship didn't cross the line of his prerogatives into serving as an advocate for the regime. He replied: "Listen, embassies transcribe what they like, and I never said that Tunisia was a democracy. We exchanged views, we compared countries and I simply said that in Tunisia there was a certain freedom in civil society, as long as one didn't dabble in politics. That freedom doesn't exist in Iran, for example."

During the same conversation with the U.S. ambassador, Degallaix said that if elections were to be held then and there, Ben Ali would be re-elected. "That was a widely-held opinion at the time and I wasn't the only one to think that," he told Mediapart, adding: "Not with 90% [Editor's note: of the vote], certainly, but with 60% [...] More generally, the point of our action is to be able to have discussions with the regime. You know, given the degree of autism of these people, who are not ready to budge, if you're too abrupt, they don't listen to you. Things did not improve over time. On our side, we did obtain some things. Some people were freed and others had their sentences modified. It's true that this did not fundamentally change the nature of the regime or the life of the Tunisian population."

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This article, initially published on Mediapart's French pages, is the first to result from an agreement signed between Mediapart and WikiLeaks on January 31st, 2011, by which Mediapart became a new media partner for the whistle-blowing site. The partnership respects the independence of each of the two parties, and confirms the principles of freedom of information espoused by both parties. It also confirms the shared principles that respect the confidentiality of sources and the integrity of the information published.

An article describing the circumstances of the agreement, and a Mediapart video interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recorded during the occasion, can be seen by clicking here.

Only a small volume of the more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables in WikiLeaks' possession has been published so far. Mediapart has set aside the time to properly research the documents now provided to it under the agreement, and to follow up with the necessary investigations of the information they provide.

This first article centres upon six US diplomatic cables, dating from 2007 to 2010, relating to French policy towards Tunisia under the regime of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, deposed by the January revolution. They can be consulted in full on pdf versions by clicking on the links provided in the text of the article. Only one of the cables has previously been cited, by French daily Le Monde (another WikiLeaks partner), in its published January 19th, 2011.