The year in French foreign policy began rather well, with a feeling of a fresh start as the new minister of foreign affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, returned home rejuvenated from her Christmas holiday to provide renewed strength and focus at the Quai d'Orsay, the home of the ministry. As it turned out, neither her return, nor the vacation itself were such a great idea.
Two months into 2011, the transformation of North Africa has exposed a slew of moral failings in French policy in the Arab world, and raised a flurry of questions about Alliot-Marie's ethics, judgment, and veracity. By Feb. 27, Alliot-Marie was gone, replaced in a cabinet reshuffle after less than four months in office. The rest of the French diplomatic corps is increasingly turning on the president as his Middle East policy continues to disintegrate.
It all began in Tunisia, a former French protectorate. If any country should have seen the first North African people's revolution of the 21st century coming, it was France, Tunisia's largest commercial partner and main lender. More than 22,000 French citizens live in Tunisia, and approximately 600,000 Tunisians live in France. Former strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was such a reliable ally throughout his 23-year reign that it seemed almost natural when French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to visit Tunisia on his first presidential trip outside the European Union.
Sarkozy, in a mea culpa of sorts, recently explained that France did not take "full measure of the hopelessness" of the Tunisian people because the two countries have been so intimate. "When you are so close, when the individual and collective destinies [of Tunisia and France] are so thoroughly intertwined," the French president told journalists at the Élysée presidential palace 10 days after Ben Ali and his family fled, "you can't always have the necessary perspective."
The president's rationale, though, feels a whole lot like damage control. For a country whose leaders often trumpet their commitment to universal human rights and social justice, the silence -- following the street protests in Tunisia on Dec. 17, spurred by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi -- spoke volumes. When Tunisian police initiated a series of violent crackdowns on protesters on Christmas Day, France didn't complain. Worse, Alliot-Marie was vacationing with her husband (who is also a government minister) and her parents in Tunisia. In fact, it was only after 23 people were killed that any prominent French government official commented. But rather than denouncing or even mildly chastising Ben Ali, Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand denied on French television on Jan. 9 that Tunisia was an "unequivocal dictatorship." The next day, a spokesman at the Quai d'Orsay finally spoke, responding to a request from a journalist, to say -- without putting any emphasis on responsibility -- that France "deplores the violence and calls for calm."