First Macron-Saied meeting to discuss Libya, Tunisian economy

Tunisia is silently overwhelmed by the Libyan turbulence that has drawn in regional and global powers.
Sunday 21/06/2020
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) tries on a chechia during his tour of the Medina of Tunis in February 2018, during Macron’s first state visit to the North African country. (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) tries on a chechia during his tour of the Medina of Tunis in February 2018, during Macron’s first state visit to the North African country. (AFP)

PARIS- Tunisian President Kais Saied undertakes Monday a visit to France likely to be dominated by a two-item agenda: Libya and Tunisia’s economic woes.

The “working and friendship” visit, the first by Said to France since his election last October, was supposed to take place months ago but  was delayed because of the pandemic.  According to an official statement in Tunis, the Tunisian president will discuss with his French counterpart “bilateral relations and the means of bolstering these relations as well as a number of issues of common interest”.

Unlike relations between Paris and Algiers, Tunisian-French relations have been relatively smooth since independence. There has not been for instance in Tunisia the type of insistence by Algerians on revisiting French “colonial crimes” or that of post-independence African rulers on  defying France’s interests in the region.

Some thing changed earlier this month when Seifeddine Makhlouf, the leader of the ultraconservative Islamist bloc of The Dignity Coalition introduced a resolution calling on France to apologize and pay damages for its colonisation of Tunisia.

The resolution  called on Paris to make a “public and official apology for all the crimes it has perpetrated against the Tunisian people before and after its direct occupation of Tunisia” (1881-1956), including its “pillage of natural resources, private properties and clear support for despotism and dictatorship.” It also requested “fair compensation” for the victims of French actions.

The resolution was rejected by parliament as only 77 MPs out 217 voted in favour of the initiative, which needed 109 votes to pass. Despite its failure, the resolution put the spot light on Tunisian-French relations, past and present.

— “Neurotic relationship”—

For most Tunisians, including the political class, reproach to France is essentially about the former colonial power not providing enough help to Tunisia since its post-2011 democratic transition. A Tunisian education expert told The Arab Weekly that some form of arrangement to facilitate access to France of Tunisian university graduates without visa restrictions could have provided a win-win opportunity for both countries. “Tunisia needs to employ its fairly well educated jobless youth while France could use an infusion of French-speaking young professionals from the Maghrebi country, ” he said. But Tunisia itself was consumed by its own turbulent politics to worry about rebuilding ties to Europe.

Traditionalists, who tend to reject French and Western influence, do not constitute a majority in Tunisia.  Cultural hang ups and misunderstandings remain, however. Michael Ayari, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group told French magazine Le Point the Makhlouf resolution reflected Tunisians’ “neurotic relationship with the West and France in particular”.

Even if right after the vote on the resolution, Macron called Saied, the French president is unlikely to have been fazed by the Tunisian debate on France’s colonial past. He has already admitted in 2017 that colonialism “is a crime against humanity.” He also programmatically said: “We should look ahead as we apologize to those against whom we committed such acts”.

Requesting an apology from France also struck many analysts as untimely considering Tunisia’s more pressing priorities as it struggles to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

According to a recent study by the UNDP and the Tunisian government, unemployment in Tunisia is expected to soar to about 21% and poverty likely to further encroach into the middle class base with more than 19% of the population considered as poor. As soon as the international travel ban is lifted, the flow of Tunisians to France is expected to resume, with many more than ever likely to seek employment there, legal and illegal.

— Economic concerns —

In the words of Tunisia’s ministry of foreign affairs, relations between Tunisia and France are based on an “exceptional strategic partnership.” France is the first economic partner of Tunisia with investments amounting to 4 billion dinars (about 1.4 billion US dollars) in 2019 and a trade volume of six-billion dinars (about 2 billion US dollars) during the first five months of this year despite the pandemic.

More than 1,500 French companies operate in Tunisia and employ more than 140,000 people. France also hosts the largest Tunisian community abroad with nearly one million people, including students and professionals, some settled in France for many generations.

What Saied will be requesting from Macron is fresh economic assistance that could include direct financing and debt recycling. Tunisian and French sources expect Macron to be forthcoming in this regard even if his country itself has been very much affected by the pandemic.

— The Libya issue —

Any tangible results out of the Saied visit to Paris are likely to bolster the credibility of Saied at home where he faces a daily challenge to his diplomatic authority from Rached Ghannouchi, the Islamist leader and speaker of parliament, who would like to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of Ennahda’s international and regional agenda especially in Libya.

The Tunisian and French presidents are in fact expected to spend a great deal of time discussing the Libyan crisis, an issue where both leaders find themselves very much involved these days.

Tunisia is silently overwhelmed by the Libyan turbulence that has drawn in regional and global powers making the small North African country’s formal stance of neutrality quite precarious.

Despite expressing a commitment not to allow Tunisia to be used as launchpad for foreign intervention in the conflict next door, Saied is trying at best to maintain a tenuous balancing act best expressed by low key stances and ambiguous positions.

He knows his country is dealing with powers above its weight, including the United States, a crucial military partner in the fight against cross-border terrorism but also a de facto backer of Turkey in its intervention in favour of Libya’s Government of National Accord.

On the opposite side, France, another crucial ally of Tunisia,  is fully engaged in a war of words with Turkey over its suspected supply of weapons and mercenaries to Libya. With Turkey establishing military bases next-door and Egypt threatening to get involved directly to stop Ankara’s moves in Libya, Said fears that Tunisia might not be spared the ripple effects of the conflict for too long. The US Africom has even expressed in recent weeks its interest in deploying “non-combat” troops in Tunisia while Turkey is suspected of lobbying Tunisians for  facilitation of its access to Libya.

Macron would like to hear the views of Tunisia and make sure it remains at least neutral in the Libyan war.

Even in times of war, culture matters for the French. France’s soft power in North Africa is likely to be on the mind of Macron as Tunisia is scheduled to host the next meeting of the leaders of French-speaking countries during La Francophonie summit, next year.

Macron will try to convince Saied that the summit (to which late President Beji Caid Essebsi committed his country) does not contradict the Tunisian president’s panarabist credo and could even open new horizons for Tunisian- French cooperation.