Tunisians have burned the French flag in the streets of Tunis for the first time since Tunisia won independence from France in 1956. Last week, in Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the scene of the 14 January revolution, people stood metres from the French embassy shouting “Degage!” (Get out!) – but this time it was not directed at former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, but at France.
During the uprising of 2010, Michèle Alliot-Marie, former foreign minister in Sarkozy’s government, demanded that France provide assistance to Ben Ali to suppress the demonstrations against him. Under its new Socialist president François Hollande, France does not appear to have learned from Alliot-Marie’s mistakes. For several weeks, the French media have waged what some Tunisians see as a campaign to discredit and vilify post-revolutionary Tunisia.
Things came to a head after a discussion on TV about the assassination of an opposition leader, Chokri Belaid. The French interior minister, Manuel Valls, declared that Tunisia was not a model for the Arab spring because of its “Islamic fascist dictatorship” led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, which posed a threat to rights and freedoms in a country that was only a two-hour flight from France. He added that France could not condone this, and would support the secularists and modernists against the obscurantists.
Valls’s remarks coincided with a political campaign inside the country that has taken advantage of Belaid’s assassination to call for toppling the elected government and putting in its place an unelected body. Former prime minister Beji Caid-Essebsi has even called for the dissolution of the elected national constituent assembly, on the basis that it has lost its legitimacy, so as to allow a “council of experts” to assume the role of drafting the nation’s constitution.
In the midst of this internal tension, the French interior minister’s blatant bias towards one part of Tunisia’s political scene gave the impression that France seeks to impose its own choices on the Tunisian electorate. French politicians don’t seem to understand that the transition to democracy requires time and effort, involving as it does the reconstruction of state institutions, the rooting out of corruption and the establishment of a justice system.
From the outset, France has shown no confidence in the ruling parties, or in the Tunisian people. Since the October elections, French officials have openly disregarded the people’s choices by offering opposition figures logistical support and preferential treatment. This flies in the face of diplomatic protocol.
How are we to understand France’s foreign policy with regard to Tunisia? Paris has been disappointed by the reluctance of the Tunisian government to do its bidding. Tunisia (unlike Algeria) refused to open its airspace to French forces intervening in Mali and the Tunisian government issued statements opposing foreign intervention.
A closer look at Franco-Tunisian relations also reveals the role of the Tunisian Francophone elite, on whom France relies for its understanding of Tunisian politics. This elite is subservient to France politically and culturally to such an extent that some of its members have demanded direct French intervention to rescue the country.
Most Tunisians aspire to a modernist model in which the values of the Islamic civilisation embrace a system of universal rights. But this is a cultural, educational, political and civil effort that Tunisian politicians, scholars, civil society and institutions in the nascent republic must undertake themselves.
It took France more than a century to build its democracy after the French revolution. Would France deny Tunisians the same self-determination?
Sami Brahem is a Tunisian author and lecturer in linguistics and Arabic civilisation. He is also a human rights campaigner and consultant for the UN-ESCWA.