Paris concerned over ebbing French influence in North Africa

The question of the role of Islamist parties is important but endless studies in the European Union about “radical Islam” and “de-radicalisation” suggest many think-tanks might have lost their compass.

Saturday 05/10/2019
Unpleasant shifts. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron, upon his arrival at Tunis Carthage airport, last July. (AP)
Unpleasant shifts. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron, upon his arrival at Tunis Carthage airport, last July. (AP)

The victory of politicians many observers label “populist” in the first round of Tunisian presidential elections has prompted fears in France, the former colonial power in the Maghreb, that it is losing influence in the budding democracy.

While it is true that the late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was familiar with all things French, no one knows what links the two front-runners to be the next Tunisian president, Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui, might have with the French elite. What is certain, however, is that the “revolutionary” fringe that purports to support Saied is quite hostile to French interests seeing in them a continuation of colonial dominance of the country.

Rehashing grievances about the distant past will do nothing to help Tunisia face up to the huge economic challenges it faces today: rampant corruption, a doubling of the debt and regional imbalances. Throwing red meat to the populace is the worst form of demagoguery. Rebuilding trust, investment and hope for young people is what is so desperately needed.

It is best to remember that former French Ambassador Francois Gouyette was quick to establish a good working relationship with Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi after the Ennahda Movement won a plurality of votes in the general elections and led successive governments in 2013 and 2014. Whatever misgivings the French might have initially had about Ennahda, realpolitik prevailed.

Nor did they pay much attention when a few senior businessmen in Tunis reportedly begged the ambassador to plead their case for a French military intervention to nip Ennahda’s power in the bud.

There is no reason to believe matters will be different this time around. That said, the emergence of Saied and Karoui came as a shock only to foreigners who do not know Tunisia in-depth, usually do not speak Arabic and view the country’s politics through the prism of the smart residential suburbs of Tunis.

Saied and Karoui may be populists but hardly more so than Caid Essebsi and his prime minister, Youssef Chahed, who performed badly at the polls after presiding over three years of poor economic growth, doubling of the country’s foreign debt, rampant corruption and endless squabbles between most parties and within Caid Essebsi’s creation, Nidaa Tounes. Leftist parties disintegrated at the polls, a just reward for their incapacity to articulate the grievances of millions of Tunisians whose living standards have declined since 2011.

The French, because of a famously inept ambassador, failed to see former leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was on his way out in early 2011. Equally, they failed to see the vast popular protest that has engulfed Algeria these past seven months. It is doubtful whether they understand what is going on in the broader Sahel where families and tribes, pushed to the sidelines after France invaded the region in the late 19th century, are re-emerging as important power brokers.

French officials like to maintain relations with “natives” who resemble them and often feel more at ease in Paris than in their respective countries’ hinterland. In the Sahel, the French back the Tuareg nomads to the dismay of Peul tribes, which play an important role across the region.

French policy in Libya is a puzzle to many in Paris itself. The French are quick to dismiss those who commit violent acts as affiliates of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, mimicking the United States, whose main purpose seems to be to push sophisticated weapons into a region wracked by social conflict, growing water stress and corrupt governments. Stability has not returned to the Sahel while the West worries about Russia’s emergence in the region.

The West must contend with the growing Chinese presence in the Sahel and North Africa. Supported by many on the ground and the prospect of the sale of equipment that is cheaper than what France and its EU peers offer, the growing Chinese presence has long been viewed as a threat by French officials and companies.

Today, these same actors are working with the Chinese — there is simply no other solution. Whether this is viewed as “losing influence” or simply accepting reality matters little.

Ironically, German companies are making great strides across the region but France does not seem to worry about that. It is losing lucrative trade to companies that strike out on their own and are less closely tied to the government in Berlin, at least formally, than their French equivalents.

Some observers bemoan Russia’s influence and sale of weapons to Algeria, oblivious of the contracts clinched by Germany, Italy and the United States in recent years.

In West Africa, Moroccan companies are very active but France views Morocco as an ally. Morocco tries to engage actors across the region, notably by funding the training of “moderate imams.” The reality is, at times, slightly different, particularly where the imams are concerned.

Algeria presents perhaps the greatest challenge. The young generation often speaks excellent French but also English. After 60 years of independence, the extent of French influence has ebbed: young businessmen work with French companies or whomever they believe can best serve their interests. French media do not seem to be able to rid itself of a view that Algerians are atavistically violent, something disproved by the generally peaceful nature of the protests of recent months.

The question of the role of Islamist parties is important but endless studies in the European Union about “radical Islam” and “de-radicalisation” suggest many think-tanks might have lost their compass. Many such studies are written by people who speak neither Arabic nor Berber, nor any of the languages of the Sahel. Few travel to remote areas or enjoy the in-depth knowledge of former French colonial administrators. The younger generations in the Maghreb, at least, have a far more realistic view of France than their elders who, when well heeled, often have their children working in France.

So, loss of influence or simply the inevitable march of history?

Recent events suggest France and its European peers must adjust that reading the tea leaves of Paris politics matters less than what an older generation of Maghrebi and African leaders were used to. More and more key decisions will be taken in Tunis, Paris and African capitals without consulting honourable correspondents in Paris.