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Hollande backs Islamist-led Tunisia amid Egypt turmoil

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    French President Francois Hollande gives a speech at the headquarters of Tunisia's union of industry, commerce and crafts (UTICA) in Tunis, on July 5, 2013. Hollande reaffirmed his confidence in the "new Tunisia" during the first trip by a French president since the January 2011 revolution which brought an Islamist-led government to power, and as political turmoil swept Egypt. (AFP)

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    French President Francois Hollande (L) shakes hands with Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly President Mustapha Ben Jaafar at the Constituent Assembly in Tunis on July 5, 2013. (AFP)

Francois Hollande on Friday reaffirmed his confidence in the "new Tunisia" during the first trip by a French president since the January 2011 revolution which brought an Islamist-led government to power, and as political turmoil swept Egypt.

In a clear effort to re-set relations between France and Tunisia, damaged by the close ties that his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy fostered with ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hollande emphasised his support for Tunisia's coalition government headed by Islamist party Ennahda.

He insisted that "Islam and democracy (were) compatible" while acknowledging, in a speech to the National Assembly, that the democratic transition was not easy.

He paid homage to anti-Islamist opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who was gunned down outside his home in February, calling him "a man of conviction, killed because of his ideas".

Since the uprising that toppled Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring, Tunisia has been rocked by waves of violence linked to radical Islamists, and its political stability has been sorely challenged, notably during the crisis sparked by Belaid's assassination, which led to then prime minister Hamadi Jebali's resignation.

On his arrival Thursday, a day after the Egyptian army ousted the country's democratically-elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the French president described Tunisia an "example" to other Arab nations and said it had an obligation to succeed.

"What is clear is that for you there is also an obligation to succeed because you are an example, a reference for many other Arabs," Hollande said at a joint press conference with his Tunisian counterpart Moncef Marzouki.

Marzouki ruled out the risk of the elected authorities being deposed in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, but he warned of a need to "pay attention" to popular demands.

Analysts say the new Islamist-led governments must "redouble their efforts" to overcome mistrust, adapt to the practicalities of power and convince people that they are able to meet their expectations.

In a speech to parliament on Friday, Hollande said he wished to "learn the lessons of the past" and recognised the "wounds" in the French-Tunisian relationship dating, notably, to the time of the 2011 revolution.

Ministers in Sarkozy's administration sparked anger in Tunisia by failing to immediately back the mass uprising against Ben Ali's rule, which touched off the Arab Spring.

Just days before Ben Ali fled, then foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie shocked Tunisian democrats by suggesting France could help train Tunisia's hated security forces to help them better control the protests.

The visiting French president also addressed outstanding issues relating to the colonial past, announcing a symbolic opening of French archives on the assassination of nationalist leader Farhat Hached, whose tomb he visited.

"To rebuild our relationship we must first confront the truth," he said.

Hached's death in 1952, four years before Tunisia's independence, is blamed on a paramilitary organisation active under the French protectorate.

With its historical ties and investments, France remains Tunisia's first economic and trade partner.

Hollande told business leaders from both countries that by supporting the economy they were assisting the democratic transition in Tunisia, which has been plagued by social unrest linked to unemployment and poor living conditions, and which has also put pressure on the key tourism sector.

"The French development agency will invest particularly in the rehabilitation of poor neighbourhoods, the supply of drinking water, professional training, improving rail links and agricultural development," he said.