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Nicolas Sarkozy sacks foreign minister after Tunisia row

President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday fired his foreign minister and ordered his second cabinet reshuffle in three months in an attempt to quash claims his handling of foreign affairs is damaging France's international standing.

Michèle Alliot-Marie, a veteran Gaullist, left the government last night after she had misled parliament about her ties to a tycoon close to Zine Ben Ali, Tunisia's deposed dictator.

She was said to have been pushed by France's president, who has seen his own popularity plummet as scandal engulfed one of his senior ministers. "Mam", as she is known in France, had been castigated for taking a Christmas holiday in Tunisia with her family after revolutionary unrest had begun there, and then being flown around on a jet by Aziz Miled, a close associate of the Ben Ali family.

The minister claimed she had only accepted the offer of a free plane ride after bumping into Mr Miled by chance at the airport, but it later transpired her parents had sealed a lucrative property deal with the businessman while there.

She also faced accusations of helping rubber-stamp deliveries of tear gas to the Tunisian security forces immediately before the "jasmine revolution", and of offering to share France's crowd-control expertise with the same forces.

In a written statement following her resignation, Mrs Alliot-Marie said she had "committed no fault". Patrick Ollier, her partner, kept his post as the minister in charge of relations with parliament, despite a separate controversy. He has denied using his close relationship with Col Muammar Gaddafi, the embattled dictator, to secure French arms deals with Libya.

Controversy over the foreign trips widened last week when a group of diplomats accused Mr Sarkozy of ruining France's image with his amateurish and impulsive foreign policy.

"Contrary to the announcements trumpeted for the past three years, Europe is powerless, Africa escapes us, the Mediterranean will not talk to us, China has tamed us and Washington ignores us!" wrote the diplomats in a letter to Le Monde.

The letter was seen as a response to Mr Sarkozy's claims that his ambassadors in Arab capitals had failed to foresee the North African unrest.

Mr Sarkozy sacked the French ambassador in Tunis, but his replacement, Boris Boillon, dubbed a "Sarko boy", caused instant offence by calling Tunisian journalists "daft". They then staged protests against him and circulated a picture of Mr Boillon posing in swimming trunks.

Two separate sets of diplomats came out in support of Mr Sarkozy, saying the others were a "bunch of old-timers" who preferred words to action, but the damage had already been done.

Alain Juppé, a respected former French prime minister, replaces Mrs Alliot-Marie. Mr Juppé is said to have accepted the post on condition Mr Sarkozy rein in Jean-David Levitte, his diplomatic advisor, and his powerful secretary general, Claude Guéant – who becomes the new interior minister. Commentators said Mr Juppé is now effectively "co-prime minister", posing a threat to François Fillon, the current head of government, who was weakened by a Christmas holiday to Egypt paid for by the government of the now ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Opposition leaders said the reshuffle would not solve the problem. "Today, the voice of France no longer exists," said Martine Aubry, the Socialist party leader. "French diplomacy is a shipwreck."