* France made swift about-turn as Ben Ali regime fell
* Repression of fundamentalist Islam made Ben Ali an ally
* France diplomatic role now trickier in Africa, Mideast
By Catherine Bremer
PARIS, Jan 16 (Reuters) - An embarrassed France is scrambling to protect its position as the dominant Western influence in the Maghreb after a last-minute ditching of the iron-fisted Tunisian ruler it backed for 23 years.
Paris was caught off guard by the speed with which a build-up of protests brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, an ally for economic reasons and because his repression of Islamist militants created what France believed was a bulwark against fundamentalism.
Once it saw Tunisia’s army and institutions siding with the people against Ben Ali, France cut him off abruptly, mindful of its economic interests in its ex-colony and worried about a backlash by Tunisians in France if it offered refuge.
But its clumsy handling of the crisis, standing behind Ben Ali until the very last moment then dropping him like a hot potato, raises questions about how well President Nicolas Sarkozy and the rest of the political elite is attuned to the popular mood in its former colonies.
One marcher’s placard in Tunisian street marches in Paris at the weekend read: “Ben Ali: murderer, Sarkozy: accomplice”.
Saad Djebbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer and political analyst, summed up the challenge now facing France, which fought independence wars with both Tunisia and Algeria, the latter a bitter eight-year conflict that still envenoms bilateral ties.
“Our message to France is ‘You made the old Maghreb generations dislike you because you resisted their independence. Do not allow the new generation to hate you as well, by opposing their freedom now’,” Djebbar said.
Karim Emile Bitar, a fellow at France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said France had no choice but to dump Ben Ali because it had realised his support had collapsed. “It’s the old debate between Realpolitik and human rights,” he said.
Analysts say France and other Western powers would be well advised to reconsider support for autocratic Arab rulers because jobless young Arabs yearning for their voices to be heard may seek to emulate the Tunisian demonstrators.
“France will now likely urge all these regimes to start delivering the progressive reforms people are demanding and warning them that otherwise they also risk being swept away,” Bitar said.
Paris has so far called for free elections in Tunisia, offered aid to keep the current transition democratic and has moved to block suspicious asset movements.
Until the revolt, backing Ben Ali had been an easy choice for France as he had brought political stability, championed economic reforms and drew in foreign investment, making Tunisia a leading economic light.
Ben Ali also improved education and women’s rights, and — most importantly for many Western powers — he clamped down on Islamist militants, aiding the fight against terrorism.
It was in later years that critics accused him of riding roughshod over human rights and democratic values like media freedom. Faced with more troublesome autocrats elsewhere, however, France turned a blind eye to growing problems.
“There was a shift in authoritarianism since Ben Ali’s last reelection which France had probably not fully appreciated,” said Axel Poniatowski, a member of the ruling UMP party and President of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee.
France says it kept a back-seat role as the Tunisia protests gathered pace to avoid being accused of meddling, but Foreign Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s offer last week to help Tunis with crowd-control tactics prompted howls of protest in the French parliament.
Just two days later, once Ben Ali was already airborne, France made it clear he was not welcome on its soil.
“Suddenly we went into reverse gear on Ben Ali’s plane,” said political analyst Christian Bouquet, a North Africa expert and geopolitics professor at the University of Bordeaux III.
“There was without question a brutal realisation of the fact that France’s initial position was going to hit a wall.”
France has long been under pressure to shift away from a past where it blindly supported dictators in former colonies for the sake of safeguarding financial interests and influence.
Yet with the resolutely secular Tunisia a haven of stability between Libya and Algeria, France’s support never wavered.
Ben Ali’s anti-Islamist stance continued to win him admirers in Paris, even if he misleadingly put Tunisia’s peaceful moderate Islamists and the violent extremists of al Qaeda into one category.
“Ben Ali was the rampart against Islamic militancy, they dared not snap it,” Bouquet said.
Maintaining its support and letting him enter France would have been a disaster, not only for the future of capital flows between the two countries but for stability in France.
“Tunisians in France were already angry,” Bitar said. “They would not have accepted him being here, they would have protested in front of his residence.” (Additional reporting by Brian Love and William Maclean in London; Editing by Jon Boyle)