January 26, 2011 / 3:31 PM / 10 years ago

France replaces Tunisia envoy with Sarkozy ally

PARIS (Reuters) - France replaced its ambassador to Tunisia with a close ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, days after Sarkozy admitted his government had misjudged the situation in its former colony.

Government spokesman Francois Baroin said Pierre Menat would be replaced by Arabist Boris Boillon, the current ambassador to Iraq, who previously worked for two years as a diplomatic adviser to Sarkozy on the Middle East and North Africa.

Boillon, at 41 France’s youngest ambassador, had “the natural sensitivity to handle the new era in Franco-Tunisian relations,” Baroin said.

“Tunisia’s people opted for democracy and freedom ... this concept is fraught with challenges and the responsibility of France is to help it towards that goal,” he added.

In a speech to journalists and diplomats Monday, Sarkozy conceded that his government had underestimated the gravity of the popular uprising that toppled Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a long-time ally of France.

Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has rejected the idea that France was too detached from the situation on the ground, saying that Ben Ali’s overthrow on January 14 took even his own ministers by surprise.

A government source said the replacement was not a punishment and that Menat would be given new duties soon.

Alliot-Marie, under fire herself for offering Tunisia French crowd control know-how in the days before Ben Ali fled, said she had found out from a friend that he had flown out two hours after hearing from official sources that all was under control.

The government has stood behind Alliot-Marie after remarks that have left her, Sarkozy and his ruling UMP party on the defensive ever since.

Axel Poniatowski, head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a UMP member, told Reuters Wednesday that things came to a head at lightning speed.

“At lunchtime nobody knew Ben Ali would be going,” he said.

“There was a complete lack of information for everybody on the grip that Ben Ali and his wife’s family had on society.”

Reporting by John Irish, Elizabeth Pineau and Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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