Concluding an official visit to Paris on Monday, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron held a press conference and spoke about their discussions. Among other issues, they tended to concentrate on political and economic matters of mutual interest.
Saied looked like someone begging for French support as he did his best not to make a mistake while speaking alongside Macron. He even had to explain why he spoke in Arabic — because his message was to the people of Tunisia who would be listening — rather than in French, the language in which his studies were conducted; the latter point was stressed as if it was intended to appease his host.
Macron, however, is a well-practised hypocrite and exploited the press conference to rail against Turkey and its support for the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya. Turkey, said the French President, is playing a “dangerous” game in the North African country. He claimed that support for the legitimate government is “illegal interference” in Libyan affairs, not least by breaking the UN arms embargo. This, insisted Macron, harms the whole world as well as Libya’s neighbours, including Tunisia. He called on the Tunisian President to act against Turkey to protect its own sovereignty.
The French leader’s hypocrisy was breathtaking. Badly-need assistance sent to a country with which Turkey has formal treaties is, according to Macron, “interference” which undermines the recipient state’s sovereignty. And yet his own country has a history of occupying countries, exploiting their people and reserves, committing crimes against humanity and killing their citizens. No doubt he believes his own propaganda that this is all benevolent assistance. He spoke as if colonialism wasn’t and isn’t despised by its victims and extremely damaging.
According to Macron, speaking to his Tunisian counterpart as if the latter was a child, the friendship between the French and Tunisians is strong because both nations share the same fate. This was a classic whitewashing of history. The French occupation of Tunisia between 1881 and 1956 was brutal: the colonists committed hundreds of crimes, including the wholesale burning of crops, destroying whole villages, ethnic cleansing and the killing of civilians.
Tunisian academic and historian Abdul Latif Hannashi has pointed out that these crimes continued for decades after the end of the military occupation: “The French occupier imposed severe sanctions on the families of the freedom fighters and imposed high fines on the tribes whose sons were involved in the anti-occupation resistance.”
Despite the strict blackout imposed by France on information relating to the military occupation era, another prominent historian, Abdul Jaleel al Tamimi, has calculated that between 8,000 and 10,000 Tunisians were killed by the French occupation forces.
“The French occupation adopted systematic ethnic cleansing in its attempt to change Tunisia’s identity,” noted writer A’ed Ameera. “It changed the official language from Arabic to French, forced the Tunisians to convert to Christianity and put restrictions on Muslims.” French crimes against Tunisians did not stop with the country’s nominal “independence” in 1956. Economic crimes continue to this day, he added, and if the deals signed by the French occupation and its collaborators remain in place, these crimes will continue into the future. “France included certain terms in the independence deals which give the French the right to exploit all of Tunisia’s natural resources with neither licences nor inspections.”
The head of the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia formed in the wake of the 2011 revolution believes that the independence document is very flimsy and does not protect the economic rights of the Tunisians. “The independence document included terms that give unfair franchises to the French coloniser to exploit Tunisian resources and to extract and transport oil without giving Tunisia the right to change or review these terms,” explained Sihem Bensedrine. She said that France is still violating legislation and keeps its own records hidden from researchers.
The French occupation helped Habib Bourguiba to defeat the wing of the Neo-Destour Party led by Salah Ben Youssef, and Bourguiba agreed to be the ruler of Tunisia in return for the continuation of France’s domination over the country post-independence. Researcher Karim Marzouqi has suggested that the Tunisians might not know that France continued helping one side over the other, with air strikes against those loyal to Ben Youssef in order to let Bourguiba’s wing, which was in France’s pocket, lead the national movement.
Which fate, I wonder, does Macron’s France share with the Tunisians other than that the government in Paris still controls their country and their future. No matter which way you look at it, he does not regard the Tunisians and French as human beings enjoying the same rights.
During a 2018 visit to Tunisia, Macron said that he would send people over to teach French to the people of Tunisia. The French language, he insisted, is the vehicle for progress and development. Macron is obsessed with French supremacy and insists on “cultural cleansing” of France’s former colonial subjects, as he still rejects the idea of letting the Tunisians use their own language.
Of course, any occupier or oppressor tries to persuade the victims of their oppression and occupation that it is better for them and the occupier knows best. This is the bitter truth regarding France’s relationship with Tunisia as it continues to occupy its former colony and tries to convince its people that the French have their best interests at heart.
Emmanuel Macron has been portrayed as a role model of a modern president. He is indeed a role model, but of presidential hypocrisy, not of anything positive for the Tunisians and their leaders.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.