Tunisia’s economic needs and Libya loom large in Macron’s visit

From Tunisia, Macron set his sights on the bigger picture: boosting French influence in Africa and the Middle East.
Sunday 04/02/2018
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) takes a selfie with Tunisian President  Beji Caid Essebsi with a picture of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba in the background at  the Carthage Palace.  (Tunisian Presidency)
Right moves. French President Emmanuel Macron (R) takes a selfie with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Carthage Palace (Tunisian Presidency)

TUNIS - French President Emmanuel Macron lent enthusiastic support to Tunisia’s leaders during a visit to the country, praising their efforts to root democracy amid testing economic circumstances and popular frustration over unmet expectations.

Regional issues, especially the situation in Libya, were high on the French president’s 2-day agenda, which included discussions with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and other officials.

Macron, on his first trip to Tunisia as president, made all the right moves to accommodate his hosts, taking smiling selfies in the Tunisian Presidential Palace with Caid Essebsi and touring the old city of Tunis wearing a traditional chechia. Throughout, the French president warmly interacted with citizens and projected the image of Tunisia as a safe country welcome to tourists.

He was also emphatic in his support for Tunisia’s democratic transition: “If you fail, we will fail too on the same day or the day after,” Macron told Tunisians.

Macron pledged that he would work to double French investments in Tunisia over the next five years to support Tunisia’s ailing economy. As a start, 18 agreements worth more than $350 million were signed during the visit.

The French leader’s economic pledges could translate into $1.5 billion by 2022 as well as $60 million to finance development plans, including a programme to create jobs for young people.

“France has reiterated its commitment to accompany the reforms efforts initiated by Tunisia,” Tunisian presidential spokeswoman Saida Guerrach told The Arab Weekly.

“The agreements signed have reflected Tunisia’s development and security needs,” she added.

France is one of the leading foreign investors and providers of foreign aid to Tunisia.

Approximately 1,400 French firms are present in Tunisia, employing 138,000 workers, official figures state. French direct investment in Tunisia was worth $1.4 billion in 2016, making it the second biggest foreign investor, behind the United Arab Emirates, official data showed.

Some Tunisian politicians and experts, who were hoping for a Marshall Plan-style announcement or for the conversion of Tunisian debt into grants, were not satisfied.

Ridha Chkoundali, an economist and a former head of the government’s CERES think-tank, said, “The share of Tunisian debt to France, which was converted into investment is only 50 million ($60 million) from a total debt of about 800 million euros ($1 billion).”

Voices in France expressed similar disappointment. “Promised French investments were not up to the aspirations of a crisis-stricken country,” wrote French daily Le Figaro on February 2.

Even if aware of the challenges ahead, Tunisian leaders wasted no time building on the achievements of the visit.

“French businesspeople have with their Tunisian counterparts identified promising sectors and the steps needed to accelerate the implementation of this strategic partnership,” said Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

From Tunisia, Macron set his sights on the bigger picture: boosting French influence in Africa and the Middle East.

Tunisia is expected to host the La Francophonie summit in 2020 at which heads of state from French-speaking countries will gather.

Of special interest to France is its traditional sphere of economic and cultural influence in the Arab North African countries of the Maghreb. A common interest between Tunisian leaders and Macron is the situation in Libya.

Macron recognised France’s role under former President Nicolas Sarkozy in exacerbating Libya’s crisis. “We have collectively plunged Libya into lawlessness,” said Macron at a Tunis news conference.

Libya has been tormented by chaos and violence since NATO-backed rebels overthrew and murdered former strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Macron reportedly promised to intensify security cooperation with Tunisia.

“The French know that it is in their interest to find a solution that ensures stability in Libya. It also helps our stability to help find a real solution that would help the Libyans rebuild their country, re-establish the rule of the state and regain their stability,” Guerrach said.