The French response to Tunisia

by Deirdre Dlugoleski

Over the past several weeks, Tunisian demonstrators took to the streets, shouting for Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s departure. These marches, however, took place roughly 652 miles from Tunis. With a population of perhaps 700,000 Tunisians, France hosts the largest community of Tunisian expatriates in the world – and has found itself in an increasingly awkward diplomatic position over the past few weeks.

The Tunisian population of France has eagerly followed developments on Arabic television, and has also demonstrated solidarity with the protestors in their home country. When Ben Ali lost the support of his army and fled on January 14, Tunisians in France celebrated.

Tunisian protesters in Paris (Flickr, Creative Commons)

This elation, however, was quickly followed by criticism of the French government, which had maintained an awkward silence throughout. Once Ben Ali fled, France began backtracking on its support of Ben Ali’s rule. During the protests, however, to the disappointment of many North Africans (both in and outside of Tunisia and France), the French government simply called for calm. Critics were also quick to note French officials’ traditionally cozy relations with the Ben Ali government, citing President Sarkozy’s 2008 visit to Tunisia, during which he praised Ben Ali’s leadership.

In addition to its 700,000-strong Tunisian community, France issues nearly 400,000 visas and 600,000 student visas from North Africa each year. With such a large presence, France must remain attentive to their needs and opinions. In some respects, the government has taken corresponding action – when Ben Ali requested French asylum, French authorities, aware of the anger that his arrival would spark, flatly refused. On Saturday, family members that had already arrived left France as well at the government’s insistence. Sarkozy and his government, however, have still come under fire from both opposition leaders and Tunisians for their tacit support of a dictatorship and their failure to condemn the violent backlashes against protests.

France had other interests at stake that aligned closely with support of Ben Ali. There are still around 22,000 French citizens and 1,200 French companies still in Tunisia, and the country has become the top destination for tourists. Ben Ali had also played to France’s concern over terrorism from the Islamic Maghreb, its largest security threat, by portraying his rule as a necessary factor to keeping this danger in check.

France’s colonial history further complicates the present diplomatic bind it faces (Tunisia achieved independence only in 1956). France expressed concern that intervening militarily in North Africa, as it had in the past, could further worsen relations with both Tunisians and the larger international community. This historically-inspired caution has proven a good defense for France’s hesitancy (albeit most likely a valid one; France reacted similarly to the recent power struggle in Côte d’Ivoire, demanding respect for democracy but insisting that the African Union and United Nations handle the situation). Government officials often remind the media that it is not France’s role to “police” the Mediterranean.

In spite of this, however, President Sarkozy admits that France underestimated the unrest in Tunisia, and had been slow to respond. Sarkozy has reportedly expressed concern over an Islamist domino-effect in the Middle East stemming from Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ On the other hand, there may be a chance for France to use the revolution as an opportunity to repair relationships with the Tunisian community. Economic incentives and work programs, for example, would not necessarily require a direct French presence in Tunisia, but would send a clear signal of support to its people. A stronger Tunisian economy would also provide opportunities for the young, educated and unemployed Tunisians who sparked this revolution to work constructively in rebuilding their country. While his government has promised an emergency aid package to Tunisia last week, it remains to be seen how France will balance its various priorities in the coming months.