'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.
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.