World Focus: France favoured autocracy as a bulwark against radical Islam

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The Independent Online

France, Tunisia's former colonial master and closest European ally, has been struggling to adjust to the overnight collapse of an autocratic regime that it long supported. Officially, Paris is pushing for a rapid movement towards democracy. Unofficially, it fears instability in Tunisia may spread to Algeria and Morocco and could eventually spawn radical Islamic regimes on Europe's doorstep.

The French Foreign Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has been mocked by newspapers and opposition politicians for her clumsy response to the street protests last week. She told the French parliament last week that France was ready to send police to help to control the demonstrations.

In private, according to the newspaper Le Canard Enchainé, Ms Alliot-Marie admitted that the French government had been "in a total fog" about events in Tunisia. She has privately accused Washington of keeping Paris out of the loop and persuading the Tunisian army to bundle President Ben Ali out of the country.

Until the very end, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government took the view that Mr Ben Ali, for all his faults, was an important rampart against radical Islam in north Africa. Paris believes that Washington had concluded the opposite – that the survival of an unpopular regime would be the best way to strengthen the influence of groups connected with al-Qa'ida.

Right up to the final day, the French ambassador in Tunis was sending telegrams to Paris saying that Mr Ben Ali had the "situation under control". As soon as Mr Ben Ali fell, Paris made it clear that he was not welcome to take refuge in France.

The abrupt collapse of the Ben Ali regime has left French diplomacy in North Africa in a quandary. If unrest spreads to Algeria and Morocco, Paris cannot afford to be seen, once again, to support autocratic regimes. But, in Algeria especially, Paris is fearful that any successful challenge to the government could be hijacked by radical Islam.

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