PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday he would offer aid to Tunisia as it grapples with a transition to a new government, and defended France’s position of not interfering in the political unrest in its former colony.
He acknowledged France had been slow to see the increasingly violent protests of the last few weeks were going to culminate in the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and said he hoped a new era could open between the two nations.
“When you are so close, when individual and collective destinies are so interwoven, you don’t always have the necessary distance to understand the other party’s feelings, assess their frustrations and anxieties,” Sarkozy said.
“There was a desperation, a suffering, a feeling of suffocation which, we have to admit, we did not properly assess,” he said during a news conference organised primarily to outline his goals for the G20 presidency.
He said France had been reluctant to intervene as the street protests became deadlier, as it was wary of being accused of meddling in its former North African colony.
Going forward, France has pledged to support Tunisia’s transition to a new government, and Sarkozy said he would offer emergency measures, including economic aid.
“I have asked (Prime Minister) Francois Fillon to prepare measures that will be presented to Tunisia to help the transitional government, especially on the economic front,” he said. “I hope these measures can be put into place as quickly as possible.”
Sarkozy said France would hunt down wealth plundered during Ben Ali’s time in power and return it to Tunisians, and the Paris prosecutor said later it had opened a preliminary investigation into his French assets.
France has come under fire for its clumsy handling of Ben Ali’s ouster on the evening January 14, supporting him up until the very last minute and then ditching him as he was airborne, making clear he would not be welcome in France.
Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie rejected a suggestion that France’s diplomatic corps in Tunisia was too detached from the situation on the ground, saying that Ben Ali’s flight from the country took everyone by surprise, even his own ministers.
Alliot-Marie, under strong fire herself for suggesting France could offer Tunisia its know-how on crowd control in the days before Ben Ali’s ouster, said she found out he had fled the country around 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) just two hours after a government minister told her the situation was under control.
She said she would probably go to Tunisia in the near future and that France was also looking at switching its ambassador there in light of the political crisis.