Macron visits Tunisia bearing promises

Macron told the Tunisian parliament that he would push to double French private sector investment over the next five years
Sunday 04/02/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) tries on a chechia during his tour of the Medina (old town) of the Tunisian capital Tunis on February 1.  (AFP)
Beyond tokens. French President Emmanuel Macron (C) tries on a traditional chechia near the Tunis Medina, February 1. (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron told the Tunisian parliament that he would push to double French private sector investment over the next five years to bolster the North African country’s struggling economy and strengthen its nascent democracy.

French direct investment in Tunisia amounted to $1.4 billion in 2016, making France the second biggest foreign investor behind the United Arab Emirates. If Macron fulfils his pledge, French investment should be nearly $3 billion by the end of his first term in the Elysee Palace.

This would indeed be a significant boost to Tunisia but Tunisians should be forgiven for being sceptical: They have heard this before.

In the midst of the “Arab spring” in 2011, France hosted the G7 summit and pledged to develop a Marshall Plan for North Africa. Seven years later, people are still awaiting the details. If the original Marshall Plan had been nothing more than a promise, Europe never would have emerged from the ashes of the second world war.

Tunisians have expected other assistance from France, its former colonial power and long-time ally, that is yet to materialise, including eased visa restrictions for Tunisians and the conversion of years-old debt into grants. When Macron and his wife toured the Tunis Medina, hecklers shouted at him about the visa issue.

Macron seems to understand the need and the urgency to fulfil his promises: His visit came just weeks after protests over price and tax increases wracked Tunisian towns. In his public comments, he correctly pointed to the danger posed by high levels of youth unemployment. All he need do is look to neighbouring Libya to see the consequences of political and social chaos.

“What you are doing is of concern to us,” Macron said referring to Tunisia’s experiments with democracy and economic reform. “What is happening here is decisive.”

The true signal that Macron may understand the gravity of what is at stake was revealed when he said: “The Arab world, the Maghreb, all the shores of the Mediterranean are watching you. They are watching you work and they need to see you succeed.”

If Macron truly understands the significance of these words — his words — he will ensure that France keeps its promises. Further, he will strongly advocate for Tunisia within the broader European Union. He will do so not because he is a soft-hearted fellow who is fond of Tunisia or because 700,000 French citizens (and voters) are of Tunisian descent.

He will do so because, if recent history has taught us anything, it is that the Mediterranean is less a sea than it is a lake — a lake with two shores inhabited by people who have interacted since antiquity, well before air travel and social media made interaction first rapid and now instantaneous.

If the people on one side of the lake thrive while those on the other side live in economic distress and social upheaval, people on neither side will live in peace and security. If indeed Macron truly understands this, he will act. Words alone will not solve the problems and promises unkept will make them worse.

Macron has proven himself to be a new kind of French leader and not only because of his youth and the fact that his election shattered France’s existing political party structure. Tunisians are waiting and hoping to see if Macron’s new style of leadership carries over to French policy towards their country and the rest of North Africa.

“We will help you achieve your goals,” Macron told the Tunisian parliament. “France is at your side.”

Let’s hope.