Tunisia and France sign accords on civilian nuclear cooperation, immigration

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

France and Tunisia signed accords on nuclear cooperation and immigration on Monday, the first day of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's state visit to the North African nation.

The accords were the first in a spate of deals — including a Tunisian airline's possible purchase of more than a dozen Airbus aircraft — aimed at strengthening economic and political ties between France and its former protectorate.

Sarkozy and his Tunisian counterpart Zine El Abidine Ben Ali attended the signing of the deals ahead of a state dinner in the capital, Tunis, on Monday evening. The announcement of a contract by Tunis Air to buy 13 Airbus A320 and A350 aircraft — with an option for three more — was expected to follow after later in the three-day visit.

Under Monday's nuclear cooperation deal, France could help Tunisia develop a nuclear power plant. The French leader has said nuclear energy is key to sustainable development and that he is willing to forge partnerships with Arab nations that want it and promise to adhere to the rules governing civilian nuclear technologies.

In the past year, Sarkozy has signed such accords with Algeria, Libya, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

The immigration accord is aimed at controlling the flow of undocumented aliens from Tunisia to France. Under the deal, some 9,000 Tunisian professionals — mostly in the chronically understaffed construction, hotel and restaurant sectors — will be allowed to work in France.

The deal also sets up the procedural framework for Tunisians living in France illegally to be sent home, members of the French delegation said.

Sarkozy, a conservative who has drawn fire for his harsh stance on illegal immigration, received a hero's welcome on his arrival in the Tunisian capital. He and his new wife, model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were cheered by French- and Tunisian flag-bearing crowds as they strolled down Tunis' main thoroughfare, protected on all sides by their security detail.

Sarkozy received a chillier reception during a visit last year to neighboring Algeria, where many still resent France's more-than 130-year-long colonial rule over the country.

France's relations with Tunisia, which gained its independence in 1956, have historically been closer than with Algeria and neighboring Morocco.

On Tuesday, the French leader is expected to meet with other top Tunisian officials and also greet members of the French community in Tunis. Sarkozy, who was accompanied on the trip by a handful of Cabinet Ministers and scores of French business leaders, wraps up the visit on Wednesday.

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