France okayed tear gas as Tunisia revolt peaked
By Brian Love
PARIS, Feb 1 (Reuters) – France, on the defensive ever since it offered Tunisia its crowd control know-how as protestors died in the streets, risks further embarrassment after the revelation on Tuesday that it authorised tear gas exports at that time too.
Prime Minister Francois Fillion acknowledged in a letter to a member of parliament that permits for tear gas exports were granted as late as Jan. 12, two days before Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali fled in the face of a popular uprising.
Fillon’s letter, a copy of which Reuters obtained, stressed that no tear gas was shipped during the period but conceded that export authorisations, which require the blessing of the French foreign ministry among others, were indeed granted.
The authorisations were suspended on Jan. 18 after checks the customs authorities launched on Jan. 14, according to the letter from Fillon to Jean-Marc Ayrault, a senior member of France’s opposition Socialist party.
France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, was caught out like most countries by the pace of developments in the hours before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, but is nonetheless on the backfoot, mainly over declarations by Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.
Alliot-Marie sparked hollers of indignation in parliament on Jan. 12 when she announced that Paris was offering Tunisia the crowd control know-how of French security forces.
She acknowledged last weekend that she holidayed in Tunisia at the end of 2010, when the protests were underway, as more than a million French people do each year in more normal times.
President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted last week that France has “underestimated” the situation in Tunisia, and on Wednesday his centre-right government announced that Paris was withdrawing its ambassador in Tunisia and sending in a replacement.
At least 147 people were killed and 510 wounded during the Tunisian uprising that started on Dec. 17, the head of a U.N. human rights team in Tunisia, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, told a news conference on Tuesday.
Since Ben Ali’s departure, France has offered Tunisia aid and vowed to halt any suspect movements in assets linked to Ben Ali and his family.
France seized a small Bombardier jet belonging to Ben Ali at Le Bourget airport near Paris on Tuesday, a day after the 27-country European Union agreed to freeze assets belonging to the ousted ruler and his wife.
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)