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French minister suffers fresh Tunisia revelations

PARIS, Feb 16 – France\’s foreign minister fended off fresh calls to resign on Wednesday over her links to Tunisia, with revelations of her family business interests there and contact with its deposed dictator.

The investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine said Michele Alliot-Marie\’s father Bernard Marie and his wife Renee, both in their 90s, bought a stake in a property company from a Tunisian businessman allegedly close to the regime.

Bernard Marie admitted the transaction but insisted it was a private affair and the minister denounced what she said was an attack on her parents\’ private life.

Separately an aide to Alliot-Marie admitted on Wednesday that the minister had spoken by telephone to Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali while she was on holiday in Tunisia during the uprising that eventually deposed him.

"It is simply the job of the foreign minister to have daily telephone contact or meetings with foreign governments," the aide, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

But the revelation raised doubts about Alliot-Marie\’s earlier account of her visit, which she had insisted was a private affair not related to her job as minister. She had made no previous mention of her conversation with Ben Ali.

The government expressed full support for her on Wednesday, but the revelations fuelled allegations by opponents and the media of a conflict of interest that they said made her position untenable.

"She has not stopped lying to the French people," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the opposition Socialist who has led the charge against her, on France Info radio.

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He said that if Alliot-Marie and her husband, junior government minister Patrick Ollier "had a sense of the state and the interests of France, they would themselves explain all the accusations against them, and resign."

The daily Le Monde asked in a fierce editorial: "How low must you go in triviality and indignity before the French foreign minister understands that she is harming the authority of her position?"

Government spokesman Francois Baroin told reporters after a cabinet meeting that Alliot-Marie "has the total support of the government team."

President Nicolas Sarkozy defended Alliot-Marie last week after the last round of revelations but observed that "it wasn\’t the best idea to go to Tunisia" in December. He had yet to comment publicly on Wednesday.

France tolerated Ben Ali\’s authoritarian regime for 23 years but turned its back on him after he was driven out in January by the popular uprising.

Le Canard Enchaine last month broke the initial story that Alliot-Marie accepted free rides in a plane owned by Miled, also during her December holiday, while the uprising that drove out Ben Ali was under way.

The minister also caused an uproar by suggesting in January that France could help train Tunisia\’s police to keep order, as reports were already emerging of security forces killing unarmed protesters.

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