5th Jul 2020

France ignored human rights in Maghreb, cables show

  • Fillon (l) and Sarkozy in Brussels. (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Top-level French visits to Tunisia in the run-up to the revolution routinely ignored human rights concerns for the sake of security and commercial interests, a fresh cache of US cables hows.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on his first trip to Tunisia after being elected in 2007 confined all his remarks on human rights to a private chat with the recently-ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and declined to meet with civil society. "Ben Ali and his cohorts ... were probably relieved to have gotten off as lightly as they did," the US cable remarks.

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French diplomat Serge Degallaix two weeks later told the US it was Mr Ben Ali, not Mr Sarkozy, who during the private chat raised specific human rights cases, such as the arrest of lawyer Mohammed Abbou. The French diplomat went on to blacken Mr Abbou's name, saying "[he] is not a friend of the West" and adding that "Tunisia is not a dictatorship."

When French Prime Minister Francois Fillon went to Tunis in 2009 he took 60 French businessmen but not the then foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, an outspoken critic, or his junior minister on human rights Rama Yade in order not to cause offence.

US officials were again told that France had aired human rights concerns in private with Mr Ben Ali.

"Publicly, Fillon barely touched on democracy and human rights during his stay," the then US ambassador to Tunis, Robert Godec, commented. "When Fillon was pinged on these issues during a press conference, he said that France 'doesn't give lessons' on human rights ... that human rights problems 'arise pretty much in every country'."

As late as February 2010, a senior French diplomat, Cyrille Rogeau, showed how deeply Paris misunderstood the situation in Tunisia.

"The French currently perceive Tunisia as the most stable country in the Maghreb," the US ambassador to Paris, Charles Rivkin, wrote after speaking with Mr Rogeau at length. The Frenchman again cast aspersions on the name of a human rights activist unpopular with the Tunisian regime, saying that journalist Taoufik Ben Brik was "'not the best example' of journalistic integrity" and had "allegedly" attacked a woman in France.

The cables, published by WikiLekas on Monday, come after revelations that Mr Fillon and French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie and her family took gifts from and made business deals with the Ben Ali elite.

The US dispatches show a similar mixture of high-handedness and realpolitik in French relations with Algeria, Libya and Morocco.

On Morocco, a French diplomat, Nathalie Loiseau, in 2007 noted that: "France has preferred to conduct its dialogue with Morocco on human rights and reform in a larger EU context."

In Algeria in 2007, Mr Sarkozy annoyed anti-French resistance veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika by saying France would show "no repentance" for its colonialist sins. A French diplomat, Jay Dharmadhikari, opined "that he [Bouteflika] will be lucky to survive to the end of his current term in 2009." Mr Bouteflika, 73, is still alive and in power.

On Libya, France's Ms Loiseau noted that President Sarkozy made a number of phone calls to Moammar Gaddafi to invite him to Paris. In the 2010 cable, Mr Rogeau complained that: "The Libyans talk and talk but don't buy anything [from us]. Only the Italians land any contracts."

"Now we only speak about Gaddafi as Gaddafi the massacrer," French opposition politician Laurent Fabius told France 2 radio on Monday (22 February). "But in 2007 we gave him the red carpet treatment," he added on Gaddafi's state visit to Paris.

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