Sarkozy fires foreign minister over vacation at Tunisian resort

February 27, 2011

The French foreign minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, was fired Sunday because of a Christmas vacation spent at a resort in Tunisia while the country was caught up in a crescendo of violent protests that eventually toppled the authoritarian president.

Alliot-Marie’s lack of diplomatic judgment, compounded by falsehoods as she attempted to explain away the problem, embarrassed President Nicolas Sarkozy as he tries to recover from a slump in public support and lay the groundwork for a reelection campaign in 2012.

In particular, Sarkozy had hoped to offset his unpopularity at home by shining on the world stage as host of this year’s Group of 20 conference. Instead, his government appeared flat-footed as the protests ignored by Alliot-Marie swiftly revolutionized Tunisia and unfurled across the Arab world.

Sarkozy announced Alliot­Marie’s departure as part of a limited government reshuffle. He presented the changes as a response to pro-democracy turbulence in the Middle East, which he said would present a challenge for France and other European nations. “It is a new era,” he said in a televised address, adding that he needed new ministers to deal with it.

Alliot-Marie, a Gaullist stalwart, had fought to retain her job, saying as late as Saturday that she would be in Geneva later this week for an international meeting on Libya. She pooh-poohed widespread reports of her impending dismissal as “Paris rumors.” And in her letter of resignation, she insisted that she had not failed in her duties.

But she had become a target for the opposition with her failure to grasp what was exploding around her in Tunisia, a country that once was a French protectorate and still is a close ally. Moreover, during the holiday — and while the protests flamed — she and her family enjoyed two jaunts in a corporate jet owned by a wealthy Tunisian businessman connected to the corrupt family of now-exiled president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Responding to media reports, she at first portrayed the jet rides as just a friendly gesture that resulted from a fortuitous encounter at the airport. But it soon became known — and Alliot-Marie had to acknowledge — that during the trip, her father had invested in the businessman’s tourism development company. By that time, the minister was also in trouble for suggesting in parliament that France should consider sending anti-riot police to train Tunisian security forces in how to put down the uprising without excessive bloodshed.

To replace Alliot-Marie, Sarkozy called on Defense Minister Alain Juppe, a foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s during the presidency of Jacques Chirac. The Defense Ministry went to Gerard Longuet, a conservative senator and vet­eran politician. Sarkozy also replaced Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux with Claude Gueant, who has been secretary-general of Sarkozy’s staff at the Elysee Palace and brought Hortefeux into the Elysee Palace as political adviser.

The shifts came only three months after a government realignment that was portrayed as a decision by Sarkozy to put in place a battle-hardened team that could skillfully steer the country into the 2012 elections. But Sarkozy’s approval ratings, already low, slipped further, particularly after the Alliot-Marie controversy was put into motion by revelations in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine.

codyej@washpost.com

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