Tunisians condemn France after revolt

Many Tunisians are expressing their anger at France -- the former overlord of this north African state -- for supporting the 23-year regime of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"We are very angry against France. You abandoned us," Hedia Khabthani, an inhabitant of La Goulette, a picturesque port north of Tunis, told AFP.

French President "Nicolas Sarkozy should go and join his friend Ben Ali," who fled to Saudia Arabia on January after a wave of protests, she said.

France has been prudent in its official reactions to the events in Tunisia.

It was only on January 13, on the eve of Ben Ali's downfall, that Prime Minister Francois Fillon condemned a crackdown by security forces -- long after human rights groups said dozens of people had been killed.

Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has been particularly criticised both in France and in Tunisia for offering to help Ben Ali control the protests.

On Tuesday she defended herself after calls for her resignation, saying: "France did not see these events coming, any more than anyone else did."

But Khabthani said: "France is the homeland of human rights and Michele Alliot-Marie wanted to send Ben Ali reinforcements to repress us!"

But while there is resentment over the French government's policies, there has been no sign of popular anger against French people and every day there are long queues every day outside the visa office of the French embassy.

Tunisians are unlikely to forget soon, however, the many French officials who praised Ben Ali's government over the years -- seen as a buttress against a tide of rising Islamism in north Africa.

"France was afraid of Islamists. But have you seen Islamists in Tunisia?" asked Saber Ben Salah, a taxi driver in Tunis.

"We are pro-Islam but not pro-Islamism. We have the mosque here, the bars over there and on Fridays I go to both," he said.

Newly unshackled Tunisian newspapers have also expressed indignation in a country that sees itself more as part of Europe than North Africa.

"France was content watching television images of the Tunisian protesters soaking in their blood, without saying a word," said Le Quotidien.

Abdelaziz Mezoughi, a human rights lawyer and journalist, said that Tunisians have an ambiguous relationship with France.

"On the one hand we have an extraordinary relationship with the ideals of the (French) revolution, but at the same time it's still the former colonial power," Mezoughi said.
Tunisia was a French protectorate between 1881 and 1956.

"I remember (former French president Jacques) Chirac's phrase when he said that in Tunisia bread is more important than liberty. We were disappointed," he said.

Mustapha Ben Jaafar, leader of the opposition Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty, spoke of strong "historic, economic and personal links" between the two countries and condemned "the incomprehension of French authorities."

"The revolution is the crowning moment of a struggle carried out for years by various currents in favour of liberty and democracy," he said.

"But French leaders see us as jokers, disconnected from the country -- an attitude essentially motivated by economic and financial interests," he said.

Some Tunisians have however noticed a change of attitude in Paris, which refused to offer asylum to Ben Ali when he fled on January 14 and has announced it will block any suspicious assets in France.

Mongi, a Tunis resident, said: "We are happy that France refused to offer Ben Ali asylum and has blocked the accounts of the family. It's all money stolen from the people that now has to be returned."

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