France struggles for hearts and minds over North Africa

Half a century after France's North African colonies became free of control from Paris, the economic, political and social links remain strong.

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Two hours after it was confirmed that Michele Alliot-Marie's incautious links with the Tunisian regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had cost her the job of French foreign minister, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy spoke solemnly on television of a "new era" in France's relations with North Africa's Arab nations.
Such is the suspicion among French Muslims about the president's intentions that with his new foreign secretary, the experienced if hardly unblemished Alain Juppe,the government faces an uphill struggle for hearts and minds.
Half a century after France's North African colonies became free of control from Paris, the economic, political and social links remain strong. The balance of trade is evenly poised. France is the region's leading supplier but imports are substantial too.
Until recent years the biggest of these markets, Algeria, invariably operated in France's favour. But in 2006, for the first time, what France bought from Algeria marginally outweighed what it sold - €4.1 billion (Dh21.06bn) against Dh20.4bn, a reversal caused by soaring hydrocarbons prices.
But this must also be seen against a background of generous foreign aid. Official figures, albeit dating from 2005, show about €580 million, 10 per cent of French development funds, goes to the region.
Before debt relief was added to the equation, this worked out at Dh892m for Algeria, Dh816m for Morocco and Dh750m for Tunisia.
So with so much at stake even on economic grounds, it is not surprising that France's large communities with Algerian, Tunisian and other North African roots have been following events on the other side of the Mediterranean with profound concern.
Young French Arabs have expressed as diverse a range of views as would be expected from people often wary of western and especially French intentions, but anxious to show solidarity with protesters taking to the streets against oppressive authority.
If the cafes of Marseille and other cities with large immigrant populations, and internet forums, offer a reliable reading of exile opinion the views are predominantly positive, with reservation, towards demonstrators.
"This revolution has taught us that when people want change, it can come," said an unnamed leader of the French Muslim Student Association, who likened the Tunisian share of the so-called Jasmine Revolution to a nation emerging from a 23-year coma to "win their freedom and fulfilment, and preserve their honour".
"Certainly, the street has seen the blood of innocent Tunisian souls," he said, writing on the association's website. "The bellies of hungry children have digested the fear of adults. But the spirit of youth prevailed over cynicism and fear."
Meanwhile, "Rachid", a French-Algerian, cautioned against support for a major uprising in neighbouring Algeria, where protests have been violent but on nothing approaching the scale of other countries.
"With the wealth it has, our country can be the envy of Europe," he said, adding the recent history of hard-won independence and civil war meant change should come gradually, not suddenly. In a country where the majority of people are aged 30 or below, "nothing is missing if we have the will to make the future ours".
In one online discussion, a contributor pointed out that the Tunisians, having ousted the Ben Ali regime in their battle for freedom, were now fleeing in ever greater numbers to Europe.
Thousands have already headed north, especially to Italy, and aid workers say most are intent on staying there or rejoining families in France and Belgium.
Although the Tunisian exodus has been overtaken in scale by events in Libya, Italy has compared the fallout from the Tunisian revolt to the fall of the Berlin Wall and is demanding enormous aid from the EU.
The tourism industry crucial to the Tunisian economy has come to a standstill and this has fuelled the clamour to escape, especially among newly jobless hotel and resort workers.
And in Libya, where events have taken a more disturbing turn with Muammar Qaddafi's harsh response to demonstrations, the pressures have been greater still.
The French oil giant Total was forced to suspend part of its production and repatriate French staff and their families, and the numbers of Libyans seeking to escape across the Egyptian and Tunisian borders has now passed 140,000, according to UN figures.
Eric Gobe, a political scientist at the Institute for Research on the Arab and Muslim world in Aix-en-Provence, believes trade between France and the region is unlikely to suffer long-term damage.
From his wide contacts with North African opinion, Mr Gobe is satisfied the majority support the protest movements. But he warns that in none of the affected countries was a return to stability imminent.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Sarkozy's abrupt change at France's foreign affairs ministry, will be able to hasten that process.