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Cablegate: French Ambassador,S Views On Tunisian Political

VZCZCXRO9869
PP RUEHTRO
DE RUEHTU #1095/01 2261533
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 141533Z AUG 07
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3667
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TUNIS 001095

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/MAG (HARRIS AND HOPKINS)

E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/13/2017
TAGS: PGOV KDEM PREL PTER FR TS
SUBJECT: FRENCH AMBASSADOR,S VIEWS ON TUNISIAN POLITICAL
SCENE

REF: A. TUNIS 1076

B. TUNIS 1004
C. TUNIS 949
D. TUNIS 986

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

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SUMMARY
-------

1. (C) French Ambassador Serge Degallaix told Ambassador
Godec August 8 that the French Government believes the GOT is
making progress on democracy and human rights, albeit slowly.
Degallaix also said:

-- President Sarkozy's visit to Tunisia was excellent, but
major changes in French policy vis--vis Tunisia are
unlikely.

-- While Sarkozy raised with President Ben Ali the general
importance of progress on human rights and freedom, it was
Ben Ali himself who raised the case of Mohammed Abbou, who
was released from prison in late July.

2. (C) Godec emphasized to Degallaix that while the release
of Abbou was a positive step, the United States believes the
GOT needs to make further progress on the Freedom Agenda
particularly prior to the 2009 elections. Degallaix agreed
that there are some areas where progress is needed and
US-French (and US-EU) cooperation on a message might be
possible. End Summary.

------------------------------------------
Sarkozy raised human rights, but not Abbou
------------------------------------------

3. (C) French Ambassador to Tunisia Serge Degallaix and US
Ambassador Godec had a lengthy conversation over lunch August
8. The atmosphere was friendly, and Degallaix was candid and
open. Degallaix characterized the July 10-11 visit of
President Sarkozy to Tunisia as ""excellent"" (ref c). He
added that Sarkozy is unlikely to make major changes in
French policy toward Tunisia, but there would be some
differences as the result of the new President's energy and
focus on practical progress.

4. (C) In response to a question, Degallaix said Sarkozy
raised with Ben Ali, ""in an appropriate way,"" human rights,
freedom and the treatment of prisoners. It was Ben Ali,
however, who raised the release of lawyer Mohammed Abbou.
(NB. As reported in ref d, Abbou was released on July 24.)
Degallaix acknowledged that the GOF was pleased with the
release and that Abbou's imprisonment had become an issue.
Nevertheless, he insisted, ""Abbou is not a friend of the
West"" pointing to reports that Abbou ""welcomed"" jihadis going
to Iraq (for example). (NB. Abbou has denied to Emboffs
making any such statements.)

5. (C) Degallaix said planning is beginning for Sarkozy's
state visit at the beginning of next year. While there are
no specific objectives as of yet, there will be a focus on
the proposed Mediterranean Union.

--------------------------------
Tunisia is not a dictatorship...
--------------------------------

6. (C) Turning to Tunisia's internal political situation,
Degallaix insisted ""Tunisia is not a dictatorship"" and its
leaders genuinely listen to the country's people. He added
the GOT is making progress on human rights and freedom,
albeit slowly. As signs of progress, he pointed to the
release of Abbou and increased freedom of expression in the
press. On the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), Degallaix
said the head of Tunisia's human rights commission, Moncer
Rouissi, is working to resolve the current impasse and to
allow the LTDH to resume its work (refs a and b).

7. (C) Degallaix said Ben Ali and the GOT are walking a
tightrope politically. They need and want to open up, but if
they do so too quickly they risk opening the door to
Islamists. For example, Degallaix said, if the GOT allows
liberal, secular groups more freedom to establish NGOs, then
Islamists will have the same right. The Saudis and others,
Degallaix said, would immediately open up Islamic schools and
other organizations to preach and spread extreme views. Such
a development would be extremely unfortunate.

8. (C) Godec acknowledged that the GOT had made some

TUNIS 00001095 002 OF 003


progress on Freedom Agenda issues in recent years, and that
included the release of Abbou. Nevertheless, the GOT could
do more. The key, he continued, is the 2009 elections, and
there needs to be progress before they are held if they are
going to be free and fair. Godec stressed there were several
possibilities, including unblocking websites and additional
freedom of expression. Degallaix acknowledged the 2009
elections are key, but emphasized that if a free and fair
election were held today Ben Ali would win. (Comment. We
agree. End comment.) Godec told Degallaix he had made a
short list of areas for progress by the GOT. Degallaix asked
for a copy and Godec agreed to provide it. (The list will
also be sent to NEA by email.) Degallaix said he agreed
there are some possibilities for progress, such as allowing
liberal, secular parties additional ""public space"" for
debate, including access to TV and radio. He added that
other countries in the European Union, e.g., the Netherlands,
would also be interested in coordinating views on possible
areas for progress.

9. (C) Godec asked whether the French had any indication of
whether Ben Ali intended to run again in 2009. Degallaix
said that they did not have anything certain. Nevertheless,
he said that Ben Ali, in a recent regional tour d'horizon
with a French minister, said that Egyptian President Mubarak
""needed to know when to leave."" The French interpreted this
remark as a possible hint from Ben Ali regarding his own
future.

10. (C) On corruption, Degallaix said it was not as bad as
many places, but it is a concern. He noted the
""considerable"" domestic opposition to the ""family"" of Ben
Ali, adding there is a perception they are not bound by the
same rules as other Tunisians. Degallaix did not believe
that Ben Ali was aware of the extent of the problem.

11. (C) Degallaix asked whether the United States intended
to seek a free trade agreement with Tunisia. Godec responded
that the United States was interested, but is not yet
convinced that the Tunisians understand what would be
required. Degallaix agreed, noting the Tunisians are very
cautious and conservative when taking any steps that might
have a domestic backlash.

------------------------------
CT Cooperation: Getting better
------------------------------

12. (C) In response to a question about counter-terrorism
cooperation, Degallaix said he thought it was improving.
Godec responded the US-Tunisian CT relationship is good, but
Tunisia is still not sharing as much information on internal
issues as the United States would like. Degallaix agreed
that the failure of the GOT to respond to a G-8 request for a
meeting with the Minister of Interior was remarkable.

13. (C) On CT cooperation with the military, Godec noted the
delivery of seven US helicopters to the Tunisians and
Degallaix said they needed them. He added that France may
also provide helicopters to Tunisia.

-----------------------------------
Med Union: Practical projects first
-----------------------------------

14. (C) In brief discussion of the Mediterranean Union,
Degallaix emphasized that it is not intended to replace the
Euro-Med dialogue or other organizations. Rather, it would
be a mechanism for consultation and cooperation on specific
projects among the countries. He cited, specifically, the
possibility of cooperation on energy projects. He added that
other countries, including Japan and the United States, might
wish to cooperate on specific projects. He acknowledged, as
well, that it would take an effort to define who ought to be
part of such a union.

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Comment
-------

15. (C) Degallaix is one of France's more senior diplomats,
and reportedly close to Sarkozy. The frank and friendly
conversation may well reflect the warmer US-French relations
generally in the wake of Sarkozy's election. Degallaix'
willingness to consider further coordination on a political
message to Tunisia was welcome. We will work to take
advantage of it. Also notable was Degallaix admission that
Sarkozy did not specifically raise Abbou's case with Ben Ali.
It suggests that Ben Ali, at least, is listening to the
international criticism on human rights and is prepared to

TUNIS 00001095 003 OF 003


act, at least occasionally.
GODEC

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