Tunisia asks France, 'why the coldness?'

Tunisia asks France, 'why the coldness?'
Comment: Tunisia has accused France of providing little support to their country as it manages its delicate democratic transition. A recent meeting between Essebsi and Hollande might change this.
4 min read
08 Apr, 2015
France and Tunisia: Friends again? [AFP]

During his two-day visit to France, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi brought with him a question that has dominated recent relations between the two countries: Is France really with us?

This simple question takes us back four years to when the people overthrew former president Zine El Abdidine Ben Ali and Essebsi became prime minister.

Essebsi represented Tunisia at the G8 Summit in Deauville and returned with many promises from France that are yet to be fulfilled.

"Is France really with us?" usually comes with a cold response when the Socialist Party is in power in Paris.

France's right-wing governments have always allotted a large portion of its foreign aid to Tunisia.

The Socialists meanwhile have never been able to overcome the close relations between the former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba and France's conservative parties.

When Essebsi was elected president in December, he suggested that France's Socialists wished his rival Moncef Marzouki had won the presidential elections – even suggested that they had supported him.

New chapter

It is known by some Tunisians that despite their differences, Essebsi maintains strong ties with Marzouki, and Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the president of the constituent assembly. Intellectually and politically, they are on the same wave length.

However, relations among countries are not based on intellectual rapprochement, something Essebsi wittily manipulated during his recent visit to Paris.

A few days ago, Essebsi said that after the Bardo museum attack, which left four French citizens dead, Paris was closer to understanding Tunisia better.

"Tunisia needs the support of its friends… but we do not want to embarrass anyone and we depend on ourselves first and foremost," he added.

Essebsi went on to say that the Mediterranean region, including France and Tunisia, should be a space for cultural dialogue, not a barrier between the north and south.

He spoke against the sea becoming a graveyard for the thousands of young people who are unsuccessful in making the dangerous crossing from Africa to Europe.

Or that the south should be a place where young people are killed fighting for the Islamic State group "in the desert".

Essebsi said that France had come to realise that terrorism threatens everyone.

His visit to France holds huge symbolic and political significance. Most importantly, it brought Tunisia's importance in the region to the attention of the French.

The North African country is shouldering an enormous burden. It is seen as representative of a country where dialogue between Islam and democracy is taking place.

Due to its location, Tunisia is also seen as a security and strategic priority for countries in the Middle East and Europe.

The large numbers of young Tunisians fighting for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have also given some cause for concern for a huge number of countries.

Tunis has been successful, to some degree, in addressing some of the overiding issues related to extremism.

Its shaping of a political and ideological solution to this phenomenon fuses Islam and democracy.

France takes action

For the past four years, Paris has sat back and watched events in Tunisia unfold.

     Essebsi said that  the Bardo museum attack had brought Paris closer to understanding Tunisia.

It closely monitored the progress of political Islam in the elections, through the Ennahdha Movement.

France refrained from supporting the Ennahdha and troika governments.

This angered Essebsi who said Europe was doing little for Tunisia.

Although Tunisia is an strategic partner of the EU, and most of its trade exchanges and investments are with France, Greece is still considered to be a much more vital country for the North African democracy.

Now, Francois Hollande is said to be convinced that France has to do more for Tunisia and end four years of fraught relations with the country.

The terror attacks both countries have experienced have brought them closer.

But there is another reason why the French president might have changed his mind. In Africa, and particularly in the north, France was traditionally the most influential outside power.

Given the recent crisis in Libya, this has changed and opened up a theatre for other outside powers to intervene.

Tunisians feel closely moved by what happens in Libya. Tunisians have traditionally made up a large percentage of the workforce in the country. They have also acted as a proxy for Tunisian companies to enter Libya, even if they are little more than a façade for global giants.

France is no longer on the "frontlines" of the war in Libya, and a solution to the crisis appears to be looming on the horizon.

If peace comes about, then a massive reconstruction process will likely be launched to rebuilt war torn Libya. For France, Tunisia represents an important gateway into the country.

But France also needs to ensure that Tunisia is not infiltrated by terrorists and that the newborn democratic experience France is now clinging to, does not implode.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.