Chirac under fire at Tunisian meet - Taipei Times
Sat, Dec 06, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Chirac under fire at Tunisian meet


Leaving aside, at least temporarily, differing interpretations of the host nation's human rights record, a two-day summit of 10 southern European and north African states was to open here yesterday amid hopes of cementing multilateral cooperation.

Illegal immigration, responding to the threat from militant Islam and deepening trans-Mediterranean cooperation will top the agenda as leaders from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and Morocco of the Arab Maghreb Union join France, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain at the talks.

Already two sideshows have come close to throwing a spanner in the works, both of them involving France, whose President Jacques Chirac arrived here early for a state visit hosted by Tunisian counterpart Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.

Chirac waded into the human rights quagmire and promptly reaped bitter criticism from activists criticizing his statements playing down human rights violations in host nation Tunisia.

Chirac outraged Tunisian rights lawyer Radia Nasraoui, on hunger strike since Oct. 15, by appearing to gloss over Tunisia's record by remarking that "we also have people in France who are staging hunger strikes."

The French leader added that "we must remember that Tunisia is more advanced than many countries."

A furious Nasraoui blasted Chirac for telling Tunisians to "eat up and shut up."

Chirac stressed at a press conference Thursday evening that "France has long been of the view that human rights are indivisible and universal."

The Tunisian government has come in for frequent criticism -- from the US State Department among others -- over its record on political prisoners and opponents of the Ben Ali regime.

The second sideshow involved French relations with Libya, now returning to the international fold after UN sanctions were removed with Tripoli having agreed to pay compensation to families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

France wants similar compensation from Libya for victims of the 1989 attack on a UTA jet over Niger but none has not been forthcoming.

"It's a problem which casts a shadow ... over relations between Libya and France," said Chirac late Thursday.

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