02.21.11

French Ambassador May Be Too Sexy for Tunisia

With his killer abs and fiery temper, France's new ambassador to Tunisia triggered an international incident after a swimsuit photo—and some undiplomatic videos—hit the Web. Eric Pape on why some are saying the Abs-bassador must resign.

France may be a nation famous for grandiloquent old diplomats, but in post-revolutionary Tunisia it seems to be represented by a blunt, moody, and coarse-tongued ambassador who is as ripped as Mark Wahlberg in a Calvin Klein ad.

For all we know, there could be countless closeted musclemen in the French diplomatic corps. It isn’t as though they post hunky photos of themselves on social-networking sites, right? But then, it seems, there is Boris Boillon. A photo of the recently appointed 41-year-old ambassador to Tunisia shows Boillon in sleek briefs-style swimwear. The picture was screen-captured from Copains d’avant, (Buddies from Before) a French social-networking site.

For French people who might have missed the photograph, Marine Le Pen, the newly elected leader of France’s far-right National Front political party, brought a glossy print of it with her when she appeared on a French interview show on February 20. “Here is the ambassador!” Marine Le Pen said, brandishing the photo.

Upon seeing the picture, Le Pen explained, “I asked myself if it was an ad for Eminence (a fancy male underwear brand), or if it was the real ambassador in Tunisia.”

Le Pen, who scores a close third place in presidential polls (elections will take place in March 2012), calls this another indication of the collapse of French diplomacy under President Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom the ab-tastic Boillon served as an adviser before being named France’s top diplomat in Iraq, then Tunisia. On Boillon’s fifth day as ambassador, Le Pen called for him to resign “for the honor and dignity of the French and Tunisians.”

In a popular tourist destination on the southern Mediterranean coast that receives about 6 million tourists each year (about one in four from France), Boillon might not seem too sexy for his diplomatic suit—if he had managed to flex some actual diplomatic skills in his first week on the job.

He delivered his credentials to Tunisia’s prime minister on February 16 and invited journalists for lunch the next day as part of an effort to turn the page on France’s relations with its one-time protectorate a month after the fall of a dictator who was close to France. (Paris only came out in clear support of the revolution after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile.)

Gallery: More Shirtless Politicians

Boillon started off the introductory meal by promising to write a “new page in bilateral relations, which supposes a new style, a new approach.” A few hours later, that approach became painfully clear as journalists asked him what should have been unsurprising questions about France’s recent failures in Tunisia.

One reporter asked Boillon about Michèle Alliot-Marie, France’s besieged minister of foreign affairs, and her alleged ethical lapses. (She has acknowledged accepting free air travel in Tunisia over Christmas from a wealthy local businessman linked to the dictatorship, even as police engaged in a brutal crackdown on protesters in the streets. And her parents, who are in their nineties, signed a deal to buy a large stake in that same businessman’s real-estate company over those holidays.) An annoyed Boillon replied, “You think I’m gonna make a lame little remark?

He got further worked up over a question about his limited diplomatic experience. Speaking in strikingly informal language, the ambassador responded at one point by saying the French equivalent of, “Yeah, whatever!” ( C’est du n’importe quoi!)

When asked to elaborate on France’s tarnished moral standing as an advocate of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law after 23 years of bolstering a dictator, Boillon told the journalist, “Don’t try to corner me with these dumb-ass things.”

“I asked myself if it was an ad for Eminence (underwear) or if it was the real ambassador in Tunisia,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen said of Boillon’s abs-baring photo.

“Me, I am not here to create polemics, I am not here to create problems,” he said. “I am here only to find solutions, so don’t try to entrap me with lame things. Honestly, you think that I’m of that level? You think that I’m into [making] lame remarks?” After lunch, Boillon walked out. [Seen just after minute 5:30 in the same video].

Video screenshot

Boillon’s comments quickly made their way into the echo chamber of Web 2.0 platforms and social-networking sites credited with helping to drive the Tunisian revolution. Within two days, at least 500 people were protesting in front of the French embassy in Tunis, demanding Boillon’s recall over his undiplomatic behavior with Tunisian journalists—who are finally able to work without censorship.

On February 19, the ambassador apologized in excellent Arabic on Tunisian national television: “If [Tunisians and journalists] took my responses as being of a haughty manner, I regret it and I am truly sorry, and I offer my apologies to all of the Tunisian people.”

His apology didn’t impress as much as those abs. A February 21 editorial in La Presse de Tunis offered surprising support for Boillon’s predecessor, a man in his sixties who never showed much apparent interest in social networking, working out, or even human rights—in a country where abuses were rampant. The paper’s editorial writers concluded that the previous French ambassador misjudged the situation but at least he “was a true diplomat.” Slap!

“In hindsight, we regret his departure,” the editorial said. If he had remained, “we would have one fewer protest on the streets of Tunis.”

Normally, France’s minister of foreign affairs might show up to help calm the diplomatic terrain, but Alliot-Marie was persona non grata in Tunisia well before revelations about her Christmas holidays emerged in recent weeks. On January 11, after Ben Ali’s forces had killed dozens of protesters, Alliot-Marie argued before France’s parliament that Paris should offer Tunisia its world-renowned “savoir faire” in crowd-control. (Alliot-Marie later clarified that she meant that France should further professionalize Tunisian police so that they would fire rubber bullets, rather than real ones, to save lives.) Three days later, Tunisia’s autocrat fled into exile in what some have dubbed a Facebook revolution.

In this brave new era of Web diplomacy, Boillon's Facebook page contains a mixture of comments of support and calls for him to step down. A more typical sign of online sentiment about him is likely found on another page, though. At last check, more than 14,496 people had “liked” the page “Boris Boillon, dégage!" (Boris Boillon, get out!). That number has been rising fast.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape