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France worries over Tunisia's stability

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France is concerned about the stability of Tunisia following the United States bombing of Libya. The strategic North African country is crucial to US as well as French interests in the region. The former French colony is a moderate pro-Western bulwark in an often radical, anti-Western Arab region. It has been a model of third world development, boasting a record of economic and social progress that few nations in Africa or in the Middle East have been able to match.

But today Tunisia faces problems. According to senior French officials who requested anonymity, Tunisia's ailing, octogenarian leader, Habib Bourguiba, is able to work for only an hour or two each day.

President Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence in 1956 and has steered the country ever since. The French fear that he has held on for too long. They say Bourguiba has been ousting supporters of Tunisian Prime Minister Muhammad Mzali, who has been considered the likely successor to Bourguiba.

``Mzali himself hasn't been touched,'' says one French official. ``But his supporters are losing their positions and that is undercutting his power.''

The French are concerned that Mr. Mzali won't have the necessary power base to govern the country when Bourguiba leaves the scene and that political and social instability will result. There is a resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism, and Tunisia suffers from serious economic difficulties that are compounded by a fast-growing population.

Combined with a weak or unresponsive government, a volatile situation could result, these French officials say. The potential for instability was demonstrated in 1984, when government-mandated increases in the price of bread sparked riots.

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