France to turn Tunisia debt into development

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — France’s president proposed Friday taking at least some of Tunisia’s 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in debt to his country and using it for development projects.

President Francois Hollande also said France will supply Tunisia with “material” to fight terrorism, but did not elaborate.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement, has been hard hit economically since the revolution and has been forced to borrow from the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, security forces have been trying for several months to root out armed insurgents in a mountain area near the Algerian border. Tunisia is also vulnerable on its border with Libya, where weapons are smuggled into the country.

Speaking to Tunisia’s elected assembly, Hollande promised to also mobilize fellow Group of Eight countries and the European Union to help the ailing economy.

On the second day of his first official visit to this North African country, he also announced 500 million euros ($644.15 million) in aid and investment for Tunisia during the 2013-2014 period.

At the G-8′s 2011 meeting in Deauville, France, some $40 billion in aid and investment were promised to the countries involved in the Arab Spring, including Tunisia. However, little of the funding has materialized so far.

At a news conference later, Hollande said France would back Tunisia’s fight against terrorism.

“We will furnish the material that the Tunisian side seeks,” he said. He didn’t specify whether he was referring to weapons or non-lethal equipment. He said he had discussed the issue with Tunisian officials.

Hollande’s two-day visit is aimed at repairing relations with Tunisia. His predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had close ties with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in January 2011.

Hollande added that Tunisia, which is ruled by moderate Islamists elected after the revolution, showed Islam and democracy were compatible. He said the country was a symbol of hope for the region.

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