When running for office last year, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to include the respect for human rights as a vital part of France’s foreign policy.
Yet during his two-day state visit to Tunisia, he has not only failed to live up to that promise, but also left international and local human rights groups aghast as he went as far as to congratulate his Tunisian counterpart, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, for the efforts he had made in improving his country’s human rights record.
It was a case of Sarkozy turning a blind eye to the facts and preferring to concentrate on Tunisia’s fight against terrorism, which he called the “true enemy of democracy.”
“I come from a continent whose recent history includes abominable tragedies,” Sarkozy said.
“ And I cannot see in whose name I have the right to start giving lessons especially to a country where I have come as a friend and where I am treated as one.”
Sarkozy went on to praise Ben Ali for the progress he had made in improving civil liberties and human rights, declaring that he was confident those efforts would be continued.
While Tunisia may well be recognised as one the north Africa’s most westernised countries, Ben Ali’s regime is constantly under fire from international groups for its abuse of human rights. And there are a few facts that Sarkozy cannot possibly have overlooked, even though he seems to have chosen to do so.
Ben Ali has been in power for over 20 years and elections are far from being free and democratic by any stretch of the imagination, with political opposition barely represented. Current estimates put the number of political prisoners in the country at around the 200 mark and opponents of the ruling regime have no access to the state run media. Human rights groups accuse the government of regularly beating and jailing opponents, accusations that it denies. It goes without saying that the press is not free
But all that seems to have escaped Sarkozy’s attention even though he declares himself to be a defender of human rights.
Once again business has won the day with the power of the chequebook proving the most persuasive argument for Sarkozy and his entourage of leading French industrialists. Deals worth billions of euros were signed by both Airbus and Alstom.
All eyes will now be on the outspoken French junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, to see whether she will fall into line with the statements of her boss or be more critical. Yade is due to meet representatives from Tunisian human rights groups on Tuesday.
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