France has come under scrutiny for a number of reasons this year. Particularly, after President Emmanuel Macron’s disparaging comments about Islam and Paris’ recent “counter-extremist” legislation, which was criticized as discriminatory towards French Muslims and seen as a further step in France’s aims to impose its version of “secularism.”
Of equal significance, France’s colonial legacy in West and North Africa came under fire. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests prompted more debates about neo-colonialism and racial injustice. France’s historic colonial role has since attracted renewed criticism, even as it still retains exploitative influence across the region.
Tunisia is one Francophone African country whose culture was shaped during France’s “civilizing mission” throughout the colonial era in the 19th and 20th centuries, as France saw its values as superior and sought to impose them on its subjected societies.
Even after Tunisia’s independence in 1954, Paris still had much sway over the country, especially through cultural means. Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, was a Francophile who valued French influence in the country, and many Tunisians viewed his successor and Vice President Zine el-Abadine Ben Ali as Paris’ “man” in the country. While there were calls for Paris to address human rights abuses and repression under Ben Ali’s rule, French leaders often turned a blind eye to such violations.
Though Paris still perceives Tunisia as part of its sphere of influence, and retains substantial economic and political ties with Tunis, there have been signs that France is gradually losing its cultural sway.
Last June, Tunisia’s parliament debated a motion calling for France to apologize for its past colonial role in the nation.
Last June, Tunisia’s parliament debated a motion calling for France to apologize for its past colonial role in the nation. The Al-Karama party led the initiative and saw a golden opportunity for Tunisia’s President Kais Saeed to request an apology from Macron upon his visit to Tunis that month.
“We are not animated by any bitterness or hatred, but such apologies will heal the wounds of the past,” Seifeddine Makhlouf, head of Al-Karama, said during the debate.
Tunisia’s parliament mostly rejected this motion, as parties such as Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) sought to keep good faith with France.
Under Macron’s auspices, France has pursued a more interventionist role in regional affairs and has not held back from telling Tunisia what it should do in its domestic policies, in an almost neo-colonial manner.
In 2018, Macron told Tunisian lawmakers that they should ensure democratic freedoms were upheld after seven years of post-revolution transition, while also pledging financial support for Tunisia’s economy. He added that lawmakers had a “vast responsibility” to guarantee “nothing that has been undertaken in the last few years is weakened or overturned,” and also stressed the need to hold local elections, combat corruption, and improve public services.
“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,” said Macron.
Some observers have criticized how France wields influence over Tunisia’s political decision making.
“Tunisia is completely influenced by France in their international relations, domestic law, and even lately with the safety policies regarding COVID-19.”
“Tunisia is completely influenced by France in their international relations, domestic law, and even lately with the safety policies regarding COVID-19,” Mehdi el Behi, an independent Tunisian researcher, told Inside Arabia. “The Tunisian head of government has clearly waited for France to declare changes and then he followed with more or less the exact messages.”
Amid growing tensions with its geopolitical rival Turkey, France has also flexed its muscles in the Eastern Mediterranean where it has boosted its naval presence. It also seeks stronger influence in Libya, where it has been at loggerheads with Ankara. France may seek to acquire Tunisia’s support in the dispute, particularly after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Tunisia last October, where discussing cooperation over the Eastern Mediterranean was high on Paris’ agenda.
France has ideological reasons for desiring influence over Tunisia. It has largely succeeded in retaining French as the country’s second language, and it is often preferred over Arabic among Tunisia’s middle and upper classes. Not speaking the language is considered a sign of incompetence. French has long been essential for education, business, and politics, and is required for most jobs.
Mehdi el Behi has long campaigned to Tunisia’s parliament for French to be removed as the second language, citing the language’s colonial roots in the country, and that, according to him, it prevents Tunisia’s full immersion into the globalized world. He instead calls for English to be used.
“Due to the French language being the second language, I have noticed that the French culture has more or less invaded our culture,” he said. “Many Tunisians now are more interested in French culture than our own; French cinematography is more known in Tunisia than that of any other European country.”
“France still enforces the French language in Tunisia, and they are working so hard via the French [cultural] institutions to bring the French language back to the 1980s and 90s age as they have realized that [its influence] is fading down.”
Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, which occurred ten years ago, has since produced some challenges to the French linguistic hegemony.
Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, which occurred ten years ago, has since produced some challenges to the French linguistic hegemony. Rached Ghannouchi, intellectual leader of the Ennahda party which won the post-revolution elections in 2011, criticized the French “pollution” of Tunisia’s culture and Arabic language. Many Ennahda members have lived in exile in the United Kingdom, where they sharpened their English skills. While the party generally promotes Arabic, they have also favored English as an important second language, seeing it as more useful for Tunisia’s connections to the world.
“The Arabic language shouldn’t have to compete with any other language. It is part of our identity,” said Ghannouchi. “The English language is encouraged by the education system and by reality. Because to do business, to open up toward the technology, you need English before any other language.”
Moreover, President Kais Saeed’s electoral victory in 2019 was perceived as a challenge to France’s linguistic influence, due to his preference of speaking Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). With such marked shifts away from French within Tunisia, French political circles may interpret this as a threat to their linguistic hegemony. After all, French officials prefer relations with “natives” who resemble them, so maintaining the language is part of France’s aim to uphold its sphere of influence.
As Malek Lakhal argued, the repeated hosting of the Forum de la Francophonie, which is celebrated by French cultural institutions in Tunisia, is driven by Macron’s desires to preserve French as a leading language, as France may fear the language “is on its last legs” and foresee the “end of the French monopoly.” This is particularly probable as English gradually becomes more popular among Tunisians, especially the younger generation.
Language has served as an important tool of France’s influence in Tunisia, though changing cultural and political dynamics suggest future challenges for this strategy. However, while use of the French language may face some shifts, Tunisia now faces greater economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic. And given France’s strong economic ties with Tunisia, this could limit Tunis’ independence in a tangible form.