Tunisian parliament rejects motion for French apology on colonial rule

Discussion provokes heated debate on Bourguiba’s legacy and sparks new tensions between speaker and President Saied.
Wednesday 10/06/2020
Tunisian Parliament members attend a plenary session to discuss a motion calling on France to apologize to the Tunisian people. (AFP)
Tunisian Parliament members attend a plenary session to discuss a motion calling on France to apologize to the Tunisian people. (AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisia’s parliament rejected a resolution calling on France to apologise and pay damages for its colonisation of Tunisia and denounces the support by Paris for the North African country’s post-independence governments.

Only 77 MPs out of the parliament’s 217 deputies voted in favour of the resolution, which needed 109 votes to pass.

Introduced by radical Islamist formation the Dignity Coalition (19 seats), the motion called on France 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 stirred a contentious debate about the role of Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba in the nationalist struggle against French rule and the pertinence of the initiative at a time when Tunisia needs the support of all of its international partners.

Allegations by radical MP Rached Khiari that Bourguiba was “an agent of France” inflamed the emotions of many secularist members who demanded he issue an immediate apology. Tensions brought MPs to the brink of physical violence.

Centrist MP Hassouna Nasfi said the next session of parliament will not be held before such an apology is made.

Abir Moussi, leader of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party (PDL), blamed Parliament Speaker and leader of the Islamist Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi for allowing Khiari to make his provocative remarks. To the parliamentary speaker, who said he did not hear the remarks, Moussi replied: “Your presence in the parliament does not give you licence to settle scores with Bourguiba.”

President Habib Bourguiba ruled Tunisia from 1956 to 1987. He also led the country’s nationalist struggle for independence.

A number of MPs from the Tahya Tounes and Patriotic Bloc expressed other reservations about the resolution, some pointing out that the Ottomans were responsible for “handing over Tunisia to French rule” and should therefore be held accountable. Others stressed that France was not alone in supporting Tunisia’s post-independence authoritarian regimes, as other foreign and regional powers also provided various forms of support.

Some deputies called the resolution “inopportune” considering the country’s urgent priorities, including containing the coronavirus pandemic and addressing serious socioeconomic difficulties it faces.

France is an important economic partner of Tunisia, with some 1,300 French companies established in the country providing 127,000 job opportunities.

Ennahda tried to use the controversy over the resolution to smooth over its relations with President Kais Saied, issuing a statement urging future “coordination” with the presidency on any legislative initiative that impacts the country’s foreign relations.

The statement was not apparently convincing for Saied. Tunisian news website Tunivision reported Wednesday that the president turned down a request by Ghannouchi to meet over the rejected resolution. Sources told the website Saied is unhappy about Ghannouchi’s scheduling of parliamentary debates on resolutions related to foreign policy issues which he thinks are the sole prerogative of the president.

The debate about the resolution on the request for French apology spilled out outside the parliament.

Former Foreign Minister Khemais Jhinaoui called discussion of the resolution “a waste of time” as it does not “advance the interests of the country in view of the economic crisis it faces.”

The request of an apology from France provoked the ire of many Tunisians on social media, with some asking if Tunisia should not also request apologies from all foreign states that are heirs to previous invaders including the Ottomans, the Spaniards, the Vandals and the Romans .