PARIS (Reuters) - French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie came under fire on Wednesday for taking a holiday in Tunisia during the uprising against President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and accepting a ride in a Tunisian businessman’s jet.
Alliot-Marie, already on the defensive for offering Tunisia French riot control know-how as protests came to a head, faced opposition calls to quit and criticism from her own political camp over the trip and her use of the private jet.
“The foreign minister is totally disqualified as of now to represent France. She no longer has a place in government and must resign,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, a senior member of the opposition Socialist Party.
Others said France’s image was suffering and Yves Cochet of the Greens party set parliament alight when he intoned: “Let me say this in a very friendly way Madame — quit.”
The 64-year-old minister told journalists there was no question of her resigning over the holiday she took at the end of 2010 with her parents and her partner Patrick Ollier, also a minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right government.
“I’ve always paid for my holidays,” Alliot-Marie said as she left a cabinet meeting. Asked if she would she quit, she told reporters: “No, not at all.”
France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, was caught out like most countries by the pace of developments before Ben Ali fled on January 14, but the government was embarrassed by Alliot-Marie’s holiday and her remarks during the uprising.
Some politicians from her own side criticised her on Wednesday. “The foreign minister could have spent her holidays in France,” said Gerard Longuet, a senator from the ruling UMP party.
Alliot-Marie was attacked not only for holidaying in Tunisia at such a sensitive time but also for accepting a ride on a businessman’s jet to get to the seaside resort of Tabarka.
“He didn’t put the plane at our disposal. It’s a friend who was heading to Tabarka in his plane and offered to take us with him rather than spending two hours going there by car as planned,” she said.
Her partner Ollier, interviewed on French radio, defended the holiday too, saying he and Alliot-Marie’s parents settled their own hotel bill in Tabarka.
The Tabarka flight cut to 20 minutes a journey that would have taken two hours by car on mountain roads, said Ollier, who has the lower-profile post of parliamentary relations minister.
On January 12, two days before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Alliot-Marie provoked shouts of anger in parliament when she said Paris was offering Tunisia French crowd control expertise.
She has since said that her remarks were exaggerated but this has done little to dispel broader unease.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon admitted this week that permits for teargas exports to Tunisia had received ministerial approval as late as January 12, even if no teargas was actually shipped during the uprising.
Additional reporting by Clement Guillou and Emile Picy; editing by Giles Elgood