France: a year starting 'in la merde'

Friday, 25. February 2011     0 comment(s)
Anaïs Marin
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme
Street celebrations of the fall of Ben Ali in Paris, 15 January 2011.<br />Picture by gwenflickr. Street celebrations of the fall of Ben Ali in Paris, 15 January 2011.
Picture by gwenflickr.
As velvet revolutions are domino-spreading in the Arab world, each falling regime carries with it embarrassing revelations for France’s world reputation as a defender of human rights and the rule of law. Paraphrasing Stephen Clarke’s pamphlet against bureaucracy made in France, one could say that the French foreign policy apparatus starts the year “in the merde” indeed.

Already discredited under the leadership of Médecins sans Frontières founder Bernard Kouchner, whom Sarkozy poached during the “ouverture” debuts of his presidency in 2007, the French Foreign Ministry has lost considerable credibility lately. This is partly due to drastic budget cuts, which former ministers Alain Juppé and Hubert Védrine already last summer warned were weakening the country’s influence in world affairs. A series of blunders further tarnished France’s international image since Michèle Alliot-Marie, aka “MAM”, took the head of the Quai d’Orsay last November.

Public disapproval first fell on her on 11 January when, answering opposition MPs who questioned her over France’s unassertive reaction to violence in Tunisia, MAM said that France was ready to offer its “savoir-faire” in law enforcement techniques (read: anti-riot police support) to help restore order in the country. It later turned out that the French government actually suspended licences to sell tear gas equipment to Tunisia only two days after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled from Tunis. 

Another scandal arrived, as is often the case in France, via Le Canard Enchaîné. On February 2nd, the satirical weekly revealed that MAM had spent New Year’s Eve not with French soldiers in the field as she used to when she was a Minister of Defence (a position she held from 2002 to 2007), but in the Tunisian luxury resort of Tabarka. 

Problem is that she and her companion Patrick Ollier (currently Minister for relations with the Parliament) travelled there from Tunis on board the private jet of Aziz Miled, a Tunisian “family friend” allegedly in close business with the Ben Ali clan. As the Canard later revealed, MAM’s parents even signed a property deal with Miled on that occasion, adding to the insolence of spending luxury holidays in a country where protesters on the streets were being killed.

Although MAM desperately tried to justify herself on various TV sets throughout the month, things went from bad to worse as it appeared that not only was she lying (meeting Aziz Miled at Tunis airport was no coincidence), but that she was also unaware of, or even deliberately underestimating, the real extent of repression in Tunisia. 

The online journal Mediapart further developed accusations of collusion in showing that the French government has long turned a blind eye on the dictatorial and corrupted nature of Ben Ali’s regime: on the basis of American cables released by Wikileaks, journalists claimed that in August 2007, Ambassador to Tunisia Serge Degallaix considered Ben Ali’s regime was “not a dictatorship”. 

His recently appointed successor, Boris Boillon, had made similarly indulging comments about another Arab dictator last November on Canal+. “Our new Sarkoboy in Tunis”, as Boillon is now nicknamed in the blogosphere, claimed that “Gaddafi has been a terrorist, but he is not one anymore. He went through a process of self-criticism. One should not give clichés free rein: people make mistakes in life, but we are all entitled to redemption.”

In any other democratic country, redemption for a conflict of interest that undermines the authority of the Foreign Minister position would surely have required MAM to resign, as called for by the opposition and a majority of French people according to opinion polls. 

In France however, the fact that President reasserted his confidence in the controversial Foreign Minister reveals a trend that entails much more serious problems. This was underlined by a group of diplomats in an anonymous tribune published in Le Monde on 22 February. Under the penname of “the Marly group”, they argued that France’s loss of influence in world affairs is “attributable not to diplomats, but to options chosen by politicians”. 

They recall that when events prove political choices are ill-conceived or illegitimate – as they obviously were in the Tunisian affair - Nicolas Sarkozy puts the blame on the diplomatic apparatus. This is a manoeuvre he systematically recourses to in domestic affairs as well, as illustrated by his arrogant attitude towards teachers and judges for example: after having cut state funding and jobs in education and the judiciary, he accuses these administrations of being inefficient.

For the authors of the tribune, Sarkozy and his closest advisers at the Elysée – that is to say Claude Guéant and Jean-David Levitte who many consider are "hijacking" prerogatives that constitutionally belong to the Quai d'Orsay - should be held responsible for the “amateurish”, “impulsive” and “incoherent” course of French diplomacy since 2007. According to the Marly group, many of France’s international setbacks since Sarkozy came to power are due to over-mediatisation, a syndrome characteristic of his “bling bling” presidential style. 

Illustrative of this is the ongoing diplomatic row with Mexico over the fate of Florence Cassez, a Frenchwoman given a 60 year prison sentence in Mexico for taking part in a kidnapping. Although negotiating her transfer to a French prison required diplomatic tact and discretion, French officials turned what they claim is a “denial of justice” into a public dispute when Sarkozy decided to dedicate the “Year of Mexico in France”, a cultural festival starting this month, to Florence Cassez. Former ambassador to Paris Carlos Fuentes retaliated by saying Sarkozy behaved like “the dictator of a banana republic”.

If culture and “La Francophonie” are the only remaining fields where France can still make its voice heard internationally, no need to say that this last mishap will surely prove as harmful for French diplomacy as the “Air dictator” scandal Foreign Minister put herself into.

LAST MINUTE UPDATE: Michèle Alliot-Marie was forced to resign on Sunday 27 February. Defence Minister Alain Juppé was appointed to replace her. More here on this cabinet reshuffle.

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