PARIS - Embarrassed by its close ties with Tunisia's ousted authoritarian regime, France was scrambling Wednesday to reposition itself in the wake of its dramatic collapse.
During El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, the former colonial power maintained warm ties with a government it saw as a motor of growth, promoter of women and bulwark against Islamism.
But when Tunisia's own people revolted against Ben Ali's brutal police state, Paris was caught flat-footed, and slipped into silence as Tunisia's security forces fired on crowds in a vain bid to save him.
"Non-interference and support for freedom and democracy are at the heart of our foreign policy," President Nicolas Sarkozy told the French cabinet, his spokesman said afterwards.
"Sometimes circumstances put these two principles in opposition to each other. That is what happened with the events that just took place in Tunisia," he explained.
In fact, France's ties with Ben Ali's Tunisia went far beyond "non-interference". In 2008, rights groups criticised Sarkozy for praising the regime "for opening up the democratic space."
And last week, when rights groups were already reporting police had shot dead dozens of protesters, Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.
A private French supplier's shipment of new equipment for the Tunisian police, including tear gas grenades of the type that killed a French journalist, was halted at Paris airport only hours before Ben Ali fled.
Many in the huge Franco-Tunisian community were shocked at this apparent support for the tottering regime, which continued until its final hours, when Paris decided not to allow the fugitive strongman's plane to land.
Since the downfall, Paris has been playing catch-up. Alliot-Marie has faced opposition calls for her resignation and Sarkozy has been forced to defend his position.
"France expresses a position in line with its values and the interests of its people, who want a Mediterranean area of peace and development," Sarkozy told cabinet, his spokesman said.
"France and all its people are deeply happy to see freedom and democracy establish themselves in this friendly country with which we have such strong historical and human ties," he insisted.
On Monday, Defence Minister Alain Juppe launched an attempt to reposition France by admitting that Paris had "underestimated the public exasperation at the dictatorial police state."
But the change in tune came too late to spare Sarkozy's government from the attacks of the left, with the daily Liberation denouncing a "diplomatic fiasco" overseen by Sarkozy's closest advisers.