What US cables reveal about France and the Ben Ali regime

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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.

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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.