By John Irish
TUNIS (Reuters) - France on Thursday called on Tunisia's youth to resist the path of Islamic extremism and set the example for the rest of the region, while Paris vowed to firm up security and economic ties with Tunis as it struggles with rising Islamist militancy.
With its free elections and secular history, France's former North African colony has been a target for jihadists looking to upset the young democracy just five years after Tunisians overthrew their autocratic leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in a model of democratic transition.
It has since managed the political transformation but is suffering the effects of home-grown radicalization and instability in Libya, where a political void has enabled the Islamic State militant group to expand with violence spilling into Tunisia.
Economic development and reforms have failed to keep pace with the political changes. Widespread unemployment, especially in disadvantaged areas and among young people in a country where more than half the population is under 29, has helped fuel growing social unrest.
"In the most remote areas, in the most marginalized segments of the population (...), young people become easy prey for the preachers of hate, isolationism and violence," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at the inauguration of the French Institute in Tunis.
"The wrong path should not be chosen."
More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Security officials say Tunisians are taking more and more command positions in Islamic State in Libya.
"The success that Tunisia has traced is what's at stake and through that the future of the entire region," Ayrault said. "This is why the Tunisian youth have a duty to resist. Your success is a bloody denial of Islamic State."
A major economic partner, France has increased its support fearing derailment of the political transition.
It has pledged a 1 billion euro (US$1.1 billion) aid package over 5 years to stimulate development in poor regions, foster job creation, especially for young people, and modernize Tunisia's administration, a major hurdle to the disbursement of international aid.
"There is a socio-economic breeding ground on which radicalization is prospering," said a senior French diplomat.
"There is a direct link between massive youth unemployment, neglected regions and the fact that Tunisia provides one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters for jihadists."
In terms of security, Paris is providing intelligence and training for Tunisia's special forces and implementing a 20 million-euro package aimed at equipping them, but it has ruled out sending advisers to help Tunisians stop border infiltration.
(Editing by Patrick Markey, Toni Reinhold)