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."

Sarkozy 'inadvertantly sent wrong signal'

According to Degallaix, it was therefore so its voice would be heard that France distinguished itself through a series of spectacular contortions, avoiding head-on discussions of human rights in a country where there were dozens of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, in which torture in prisons were commonplace as were the intimidation and the abduction of opponents. The list in the WikiLeaks cables is eloquent:

  • In an analysis (cable 117270) written by the U.S. ambassador in Paris, dated July 31st 2007, two weeks after Sarkozy's visit to Tunisia, he wrote that the French foreign ministry's "Tunisia/Libya desk officer Christian Reigneaud had a less stressful time preparing Sarkozy's visit to Tunis. The Tunisians, he said, were warm and there were almost no contentious issues to discuss. Human rights were the exception, and in that sense the French delegation quickly picked up Tunisian nervousness about how Sarkozy, as opposed to [Editor's note: former French President Jacques] Chirac, would deal with them. In the end, Reigneaud explained, Sarkozy exercised discretion in confining his most critical comments on human rights to his one‐on‐one with Ben Ali."
  • From a cable from the U.S. embassy in Tunis dated July 30th 2009 (204864), during a visit to Tunis by French Prime Minister François Fillon: "In comparison to economic issues, the Prime Minister made fewer public statements on democracy and human rights. Fillon didn't include Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner or Secretary of Human Rights Rama Yade in his delegation. [...]When Fillon was pinged on these issues during a press conference, he said that France ‘doesn't give lessons' on human rights, and that the world ‘asks more of Tunisia' because it is more developed and more ‘similar to us.'"
  • Taoufik Ben Brik is a Tunisian journalist and well-known opponent of the Ben Ali regime sentenced to six months in prison in February 2010 for attacking and harassing a young Tunisian woman who filed a complaint against him. Reporters without Borders along with other French and Tunisian human rights organisations consider that he was setup by the regime and that the trial was a sham of justice. Harassment accusations are commonplace in Tunisia and are used both to have opponents condemned and to discredit the alleged perpetrator. But French diplomats didn't question the argument. On the subject of Ben Brik, a cable from the U.S. ambassador in Paris, dated August 2nd, 2010, (cable 247719), quotes the French foreign ministry's deputy director for North Africa, Cyrille Rogeau, who, it said, "described him as ‘not the best example' of journalistic integrity." The cable continued: "Rogeau reported that French courts are also currently pursuing Ben Brik, for having allegedly attacked a Tunisian woman who has decided to press charges against him in France. [...] Nonetheless, the French no longer discuss his case with the Tunisians, Rogeau said." Ben Brick was finally freed after serving his time. To date (February 27th 2011), he has never been sentenced in a French court.

Nicolas Sarkozy hoped, according to a U.S. embassy cable (cable 117270), to validate a rupture with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who Sarkozy believed provided a muddled image of French diplomacy in Tunisia. In December 2003, during an official trip, Jacques Chirac had in fact provoked a series of indignant commentaries due to an unambiguous statement explaining France's silence regarding human rights in Tunisia. "The primary human rights are to be able to eat, to access health care, to get an education and to have a home. From that point of view, one has to recognise that Tunisia is very much in advance of many countries," he said. Two years later, a call to respect human rights by Chirac's then foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blasy outraged the Ben Ali regime.

Yet, this rupture hoped for, by Nicolas Sarkozy fell short, according to an analysis made by the U.S. embassy in Paris. "In Tunisia, Sarkozy wanted to mark a break from the heavily personalized and much criticized relationship Chirac had with Ben Ali. His desire to keep the most contentious part of the bilateral relationship away from public view, however, inadvertently sent the wrong signal. His delegation snubbed Tunisia's independent civil society, and his state secretary for human rights was forced to endure ridicule in the French media for having been invisible in Tunis and only meeting the head of a Tunisian human rights group in Paris after the visit. Ben Ali and his cohorts, on the other hand, were probably relieved to have gotten off as lightly as they did," the cable said.

'We couldn't foresee the revolution in a crystal ball'

As early as the summer of 2007, a few months after Sarkozy's election, the hope of a new policy was abandoned. Rather than concern for human rights and Tunisian civil society, France's obsession revolved around security issues. This was a subject about which Sarkozy regularly complained, as revealed by cable 130874 from the U.S embassy in Paris dated November 20th 20071. Its contents are a summary of a meeting between US embassy officials and the chief of the North African desk at the French foreign ministry, Nathalie Loiseau. "She said that Sarkozy, as a former interior minister, is extremely unhappy with the unsatisfactory state of cooperation and the exchange of intelligence information concerning terrorism," it read.

But this preoccupation didn't originate with Sarkozy. In December 2001, Jacques Chirac had already travelled to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to discuss the fight against terrorism. Chirac was, contrary to his successor, particularly laudatory towards Tunisia and considered that, in the fight against terrorism, the two countries shared the same vision. After the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th 2001, cooperation in security matters became a constant preoccupation for France. Nonetheless, this was out of sync with the image maintained in official speeches as well as in briefings between ambassadors, which referred to Tunisia as the most stable regime of the region, according to cable 247804 from the US embassy in Paris dated February 8th, 2010.

Flexible where human rights are concerned, France was much less so in matters of security. Yet this selective openness did not achieve a level of cooperation satisfactory to France. "Cooperation and information exchange were not good, that's true," recalled France's former ambassador to Tunis, Serge Degallaix. "Obviously what interested us was not so much what was happening on Tunisian soil, but the Tunisians who were taking a growing part in the attacks world-wide. On that point, the Tunisian authorities never appreciated that we put our noses in their business," he added.

Indeed, in a statement issued following an investigation in Tunisia from January 22nd to 26th, 2010, Martin Scheinin, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, highlighted "the existence of serious discrepancies between the [Editor's note: 2003 anti-terrorism] law and what was reported to me as happening in reality". He also noted that "in the majority of cases since 2003 mere intentions are punished, be it in terms of ‘planning' or in terms of ‘membership', the latter often within vaguely defined organizations or groups." He further worried that "it appears that the scope of application of the terrorism provisions has grown too wide and could be reduced."

On the other hand, the Mediterranean Union, an initiative launched by Sarkozy with great pomp on July 13th, 2008, which has since sunk into oblivion, gained the enthusiastic support of Tunis after facing procrastination from Morocco and especially Algeria. For the Tunisians, it was another opportunity to deflect the attention of the countries of Northern Europe away from human rights issues (cable 117270).

The issues of human rights and changes in Tunisian civil society, which would fuel the future revolution, were repeatedly neglected by French diplomacy. Questioned on the subject by Mediapart, former ambassador Serge Degallaix protested: "But what do you expect? We couldn't look into a crystal ball to predict the future and the revolution. Furthermore, our margin of manoeuvre was, in any case, limited. Revolutions are made by the people, not by diplomats," he concluded.

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1: See end of cable and an intriguing separate report on Sarkozy's invite to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to visit Paris that winter; the French presidential advisor Boris Boillon, cited in the extract,was appointed French ambassador to Tunis following the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

English version: Patricia Brett
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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.