Sarkozy in Africa

French President Calls for New Trans-Mediterranean Partnership

The French President Nicholas Sarkozy revealed during his last trip to both Algeria and Tunisia four factors integral to a project designed to unite the countries on the Mediterranean basin which he proposed to both presidents Boutiflika and Ben Ali. Salim Boukhdir reports

​​The French President and his ambassador spoke at length during their visits regarding the concerted efforts needed on the part of these countries in areas that include the environment and safeguarding and protecting the Mediterranean waterways especially from pollution.

Another principle factor covered during these talks was cooperation on the economic and developmental front in addition to the joint efforts in fighting crime and establishing security. The fourth factor focused on encouraging a much more profound level of dialogue between civilizations around the Mediterranean.

Selective migration versus clandestine migration

Sarkozy's ambassador also highlighted other aspects of the new project; he spoke of technological cooperation between the two nations which would include establishing joint universities in addition to access to information sharing between the South and the North. The project seeks to cover selective migration as one of the solutions to the problem of clandestine migration and hopes to lay a basis for the assimilation of migrants to the countries of the North.

No one can disagree with the fact that the project was initially released as part of the French presidential campaign last May and that it has come to replace another similar failed agreement between the same parties even though the French have avoided admitting so. The new project was decidedly not launched as a substitute to that other more well known agreement.

Magnitude of the challenges

The birth of this new project of Mr. Sarkozy surfaced and saw the light of day after all signatory parties have admitted to the failure of the Barcelona Agreement established in 1995. It failed on many fronts though one should attribute to it some credit such as it resuscitating a level of cooperation between some of the states that were signatory to the Agreement.

It did not take long for Mr. Sarkozy to discover during his first visit to the countries of the South after his election as President of France the magnitude of the challenges ahead for the success of such an ambitious project in order for all the signatory parties to reap the benefits of such an Agreement.

It became all too clear that some of the hurdles that have stood in the way of the success of the Barcelona Agreement would be at the lead of the challenges facing the creation of a United Mediterranean if it intends to move beyond all previous hurdles.

The politics of scheduling

In his last visit to the South, Morocco has conveyed its apologies in not scheduling a meeting with the French president citing the timing of his visit and asking for a postponement until the month of October due to the "pressure in the schedule of the King Muhammad the Sixth'. Sources close to the Moroccan monarch revealed to the media that Morocco did not approve of the French president visiting Algeria first on his itinerary as well as wanting to discern more clearly the position of France as a member in the Security Council on the problem of the Western Sahara.

All this indicates that the squabbles between the countries of the Mediterranean (with the problem of the Western Sahara in the lead) began concomitantly with the first visit of Mr. Sarkozy symptomatic of the fact that these issues continue to exist as a major obstacle in the dialogue between all the parties foreshadowing the birth of the United Mediterranean.

In fact, as Mr. Sarkozy was launching his project to the Algerian and Tunisian presidents, the Turks leaked to the press their intention not to support such a project as a back handed rejection on their part for not being allowed to join the European Union.

"The occupation was a good thing"

Mr. Sarkozy also encountered another obstacle to his project associated this time to his refusal to apologize for the law issued in France on the 23rd of February that was regarded as "laudatory to the French occupation of Algeria". It is known that France's refusal to apologize was the reason the project of friendship between the two nations in 2005 was met with failure.

Apart from these Algerian, Moroccan, Turkish and European disagreements, the preliminary discussions which Mr. Sarkozy conducted with the governments in the region uncovered other factors that would make the very launching of such a project appear yet more difficult.

One of these stumbling blocks relates to the disparities between the nations of the North and its neighbours in the South regarding government and the issue of human rights. Furthermore, the success of this Mediterranean project should steer away from inheriting from its Barcelona precursor its unsolved problems. The governments in the South have a habit of not honouring their pledges with regard to human rights and public freedom.

Tunisia: "Human rights? Thank you, no"

Observers have noted that the government owned media in Tunis, for example, has responded to the French president, when he spoke in his press conference on the subject of human rights in Tunis during his meeting with Ben Ali, by spinning his comments as part of discussing generalities.

One can then infer that these governments would not accept other clauses in the United Mediterranean project that involve human rights and open government from its neighbour in the North which hoped that such a project would ensure that both sides of the Mediterranean would enjoy the values of freedom and those of the French Republic.

If the principles were accepted by these governments, one needs to question if they will honour their pledges unlike all past interactions between the European Union and the other Mediterranean nations or even within the parameters of the Barcelona Treaty itself where respect for human rights remained simply a matter of ink on paper obstructing its success.

One can say that Mr. Sarkozy began to realize his dream of a United Mediterranean with a first step to a visit to Algeria and Tunis in the hope of clarifying the challenges and difficulties ahead. It is clear that there are many conditions on the ground that would impede transforming the dream to a reality. The old saying would still hold true: the path of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Salim Boukhdir

© 2007

Salim Boukhdir is a Tunisian writer and journalist.

Translated from the Arabic by Mona Zaki.

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