Mechichi, Castex discuss economic support for Tunisia, migration

Stemming the illegal migration outflow with the current approach is not realistically achievable, stressed the Tunisian prime minister. “Blocking migrants on Tunisian or North African coast is insuffciant and impossible,” he told Le Figaro, insisting “A solidarity-based model of development” is needed.
Friday 04/06/2021
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, left, and his Tunisian counterpart Hichem Mechichi hold a joint press conference after their talks in Tunis, June 3, 2021. (REUTERS)
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, left, and his Tunisian counterpart Hichem Mechichi hold a joint press conference after their talks in Tunis, June 3, 2021. (REUTERS)

TUNIS--French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday pledged to help Tunisia forge ahead with reforms, as the small Arab country grapples with a deep economic crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Analysts are reserved about the ability of France to help Tunisia out of its current rut, considering the North African country’s internal political tensions.

Castex said Paris was ready to help Tunisia, a former French colony he described as a “friend”, carry out economic and social reforms that could improve conditions, with unemployment rates standing at 18 percent.

“These reforms are important for Tunisia, for the Tunisian people and for the French-Tunisian partnership,” Castex said after talks with his Tunisian counterpart Hichem Mechichi.

Castex also discussed the return of radicalised Tunisians and those  illegally in France.

In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, Mechichi said that Tunisia is willing to cooperate with Paris on the repatriation of Tunisians “who have no reason to be in France”. He noted that signed agreements “are working”.

Last year, Paris gave Tunis a list of some 20 Tunisians it wanted to expel, because they had been convicted on terrorism charges or were suspected of jihadist links.

Castex also held talks on how to stem the flow of illegal sea crossings, with Tunisia acting as a key launch pad for many of those risking the dangerous journey from North Africa to Europe.

Tunisia believes the issue of illegal migration cannot be resolved without addressing the socio-economic roots of the problem, principally unemployment and the lack of economic opportunity.

Stemming  the illegal migration outflow with the current approach is not realistically achievable, stressed the Tunisian prime minister. “Blocking migrants on Tunisian or North African coast is insuffciant and impossible,” he told Le Figaro, insisting “A solidarity-based model of development” is needed.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi drives his French counterpart in Tunis, June 3, 2021.  (AFP)
Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi drives his French counterpart in Tunis, June 3, 2021.  (AFP)

A decade since its 2011 uprising, Tunisia still faces deep political and economic crises.

In exchange for implementing reforms, the country is hoping to secure a three-year loan  from the International Monetary Fund, which expects to see GDP growth of 3.8 percent this year, after an unprecedented 8.9 percent contraction in 2020.

France last year pledged to lend Tunis €350 million, with €100 million handed over so far.

Tunisia is also discussing the recycling of its French debt of €831 million.

Tunisian analysts said the promised aid is not sufficient in itself to solve Tunisia’s budget deficit nor impel its long-term reform. More important, they say, is France’s backing for Tunisia’s drive to receive the help of the European Union and that of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which requires a better coordinated stance between Tunisia’s feuding politicians.

President Kais Saied is currently in Brussels meeting with EU institutions.

Paris has sent three oxygen concentrators, 18 ventilators and more than 200,000 face masks to help Tunisia’s health authorities cope with a spike in COVID-19 cases.

A delay in the acquisition of vaccines by the country’s government has compounded Tunisia’s public health crisis and overwhelmed hospitals.

Tunisia, a country of almost 12 million, has officially recorded more than 348,000 coronavirus cases and 12,793 deaths.

Slightly more than one million people have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 300,000 two doses. This puts the inoculation drive much below the million two-dose vaccination benchmark previously announced by health authorities for the end of June.

Last month Mechichi said the country was going through “the worst health crisis in its history” and that health facilities were at risk of collapse.