French PM’s two-day visit aims to help Tunisia amid economic crisis

Tunisia is hoping Castex’s visit will result in economic assistance at a time when the country is going through a very difficult situation, with little optimism about the success of talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Wednesday 02/06/2021
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, right, meets Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in Paris, Monday, December 14, 2020. (AP)
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, right, meets Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in Paris, Monday, December 14, 2020. (AP)

PARIS – French Prime Minister Jean Castex will start a trip to Tunisia late Wednesday, accompanied by six ministers. The visit, which will continue into Thursday, aims at strengthening relations with the North African country, which is facing several crises and suffering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two months after a controversial  last minute cancellation of a trip by Castex to Algeria, the French prime minister is making his first international visit of similar importance to take part in the Third French-Tunisian High Council for Cooperation.

Since the council’s last session, a new Tunisian government has taken  office, Kais Saied was elected president in October 2019 and Hichem Mechichi was named prime minister in 2020.

The visit comes amid Tunisian political tensions caused by critical constitutional differences between the three key players: the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.

Observers do not rule out the possibility of mediation by France, which has strong relations with all players on the local political scene. In this regard, it is argued that Paris can bridge differences and find solutions to help the country out of its predicament.

According to the office of the French prime minister, the visit will focus in particular on the health crisis. This comes after a surge in COVID-19 infections at the beginning of spring, raising fears of a severe shortage in oxygen supplies.

France is expected to provide assistance after it pledged to send oxygen-generating units to three Tunisian hospitals.

The talks will also look at Franco-Tunisian economic partnerships and cooperation. The visit will include the signing of some agreements, a tour of  the works building high-speed trains for Tunisia and a meeting on digital technology, organised by Tunisian and French businessmen.

However, Tunisia’s critical economic situation is bound to dominate the Castex visit.

France pledged last year to provide a loan of €350 million over three years to support Tunisia’s current transformation. €100 million of which have been disbursed so far.

The loan, however, “is not enough, and the French help is not going in the right direction,” political analyst Hakim Karoui said.

“Grants must be provided ranging from one billion to two billion euros, according to a European initiative that fits within the framework of the economic recovery plan, with the aim of overcoming the peak of the COVID-19 wave” added Karoui, who is also downplaying hopes for a recovery of the tourism sector in Tunisia.

“In the fall, there will be people who were not able to replenish their income,” he said, stressing that the social and political crises should not be blamed  for this.

Tunisia’s internal plight has direct repercussions on the European Union, currently talking about an agreement to provide economic aid, in return for strengthening efforts to contain the flow of migrants. The talks will also deal with the issue of combating terrorism, sources said.

Tunisia is hoping Castex’s visit will result in economic assistance at a time when the country is going through a very difficult situation, with little optimism about the success of talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Since mid-May, Tunisia has been in negotiations with the IMF to obtain a credit line of about $4 billion in exchange for a package of reforms, which all previous governments that negotiated with the IMF failed to implement.

Experts do not rule out the risk of bankruptcy in a country that is experiencing a persistent deficit, stressing that the economy has suffered for years as a result of the political crisis, with the state needing to borrow at least $6 billion from the international market to manage public expenditures.