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French president joins other world leaders in praising Tunisia's constitutional breakthrough

As recently as December, the outlook for Tunisia remained grim. International lenders were withholding money. Parliament remained deadlocked. Investigations continued into the assassination of two politicians.

On Friday, French President Francois Hollande and other world leaders are attending a ceremony for the formal adoption of a document being praised as one of the most progressive constitutions in an Arab nation.

What a turnaround.

The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia, is now being described by many analysts as a region-wide winter, especially in countries such as Egypt, where the country's first popularly elected leader was deposed by the military. But Tunisia remains a bright spot, since its fractious elected assembly finally wrote and passed a progressive constitution last month.

When Hollande last visited Tunisia in July, "the question was whether it would be a good thing to go to Tunisia, because 'Oh la la, it's complicated,'" given the stalled constitutional process, said an official with the French presidency. "Today we are going again because it's a success," he said on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy.

Friday's ceremony in Tunis also will include the presidents of Senegal and Gabon, heads of state from Lebanon, Mauritania and Chad, the Algerian prime minister, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe, and several European parliamentary leaders.

On Monday, President Barack Obama called new interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa and congratulated him on the new constitution, and invited him to visit Washington.

After overthrowing their dictator in 2011, Tunisians brought a moderate Islamist party into power allied with two other secular parties. But this coalition struggled in the face of continuing social unrest, high unemployment and the rise of a radical Islamist movement with ties to al-Qaida that seemed bent on derailing the political transition.

The assassinations of two left-wing politicians, one in February and the other in July, prompted a walkout by the opposition and brought the entire political transition to its knees.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls accused the government of Islamic-fascism.

The deadlock exacerbated the economic crisis in Tunisia, and the International Monetary Fund withheld a half billion dollar loan. The S&P international ratings agency in August downgraded Tunisia's credit rating two more notches deeper into junk territory. It described "the popular legitimacy of Tunisia's transitional institutions as increasingly contested, jeopardizing the approval of the new constitution." Inflation soared, the budget deficit yawned even wider, and demonstrations over high food prices and lack of jobs spread.

With the passage of the constitution, however, Tunisia's image abroad has brightened immeasurably, as symbolized by the IMF release of its loan a few days after the document was adopted.

Ezzedine Saidane, a Tunisian financial expert, said the World Bank is now expected to extend a loan of its own soon, and the African Development Bank to lift a moratorium on lending to Tunisia.

"The fundamentals are the same, but now it's a simply a psychological matter. People feel better and are relieved somehow," he said. "I think the mood has changed tremendously, both inside the country and outside the country."

The slide of the Tunisian dinar against foreign currencies has halted, and even the stock market has perked up, despite the fact that the serious economic problems remain.

There is a sense that the international community is once more backing Tunisia's revolution now that it has shown that it can move forward, said Mansouria Mokhefi, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the French Institute for International Relations.

"The three years of this revolution were not really supported by the Western countries because of the economic crisis in Europe, and because of these misunderstandings that arose at the outset of the revolution. The support was not there," she said.

This was especially true of France.

Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had close relations with the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Sarkozy's government expressed deep reservations about the subsequent victory of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party at the polls.

Hollande's government attempted to patch up relations with Tunisia during his visit in July. But a deep uneasiness remained that the nation's transition could still fail.

But "France is now extremely relieved" about Tunisia's progress, said Mokhefi.

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Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report from Paris.