Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisia: European Influence

Tunisia european influence
“A Cafe in Tunis, French protectorate of Tunisia, 1912.” by Julius.jaa is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During the rule of the Husaynid beys, Tunisia initially experienced a period of prosperity, especially during the period of the French Revolution, which led to economic shortages in Europe that were partially covered by Tunisian exports. But, beginning in the 1820s, the Tunisian economy declined. In the early 19th century, Tunisia had ceased its corsair raids, under an agreement with British and French authorities.

In addition, various European powers began to export products to Tunisia, changing domestic prices, often to the disadvantage of Tunisian merchants and the ruling authorities. Domestic traders could not compete with many European products, making it more difficult for them to sell their goods and services. Increasing European influence culminated in 1881 when France established a protectorate over Tunisia that would last until 1956. The Husaynid beys continued in office under the protectorate, but their role was largely ceremonial.

The French Protectorate

Russia declared war on the Turks in 1877, leading to the eventual decline of the Ottoman Empire, and a decade later the European powers met at the 1887 Congress of Berlin to discuss the future of the territories that had belonged to the now defeated Ottoman Empire. It was decided that Italy would get what is now Libya, while Britain asked for European support to contain rebellions in its occupied Egypt.

France was promised supremacy over Tunisia, a country popular amongst the colonial powers for its good port facilities and its strategically important location on the Algerian border and close to Sicily. In the beginning, France attempted to reach an agreement with the ruling bey over its occupation of Tunisia, but negotiations failed. The raid by the Tunisian Khroumir tribe into French Algeria in 1881 gave France a pretext to invade Tunisia. Supported by an army of 36,000, the ruling authority of the French was quickly established throughout the country.

In May 1881, Bey Muhammad III al-Sadiq was forced to sign the Bardo Treaty, which established French supremacy over Tunisia. Following the signing of the treaty, uprisings occurred throughout the country – the new rulers and the bey’s apparent submission to them were not approved of by the broad population. The La Marsa Convention (1883) established a French protectorate over the country, ensuring Tunisia’s formal independence.

The bey was allowed to remain in office, and existing bilateral treaties remained in force. Yet the authority of the French resident-general was unparalleled: he was acting Prime Minister and had charge of Tunisia’s armed forces and finances and was empowered to restructure judicial and financial matters. The beys would soon become no more than a means to enact and legitimize French decisions.

Through a combination of laws and measures, the French brought Tunisia effectively under their control by the end of the 19th century. The beys were pressured to appoint to key government posts, such as Prime Minister, loyal people who did not oppose the French, while those who supported the 1881 anti-French rebellion were dismissed. The resident-general enacted executive degrees that were then publicly proclaimed by the bey, effectively diminishing the latter’s authority over the country.

In order to control local authorities more effectively, the French allowed so-called caïds, provincial governors  (from qaid, ruler), and cheikhs to keep their positions, knowing that France was thus de facto buying their loyalty. The French authority also appointed ‘civil controllers’, whose job was to supervise the provincial governors and cheikhs. When, at the end of the 19th century, the Tunisian secret service was brought under control, French supremacy seemed insurmountable.

Economically, France made it a priority to decrease the debts of the Tunisian state by, among other things, supervising the collection of taxes. This resulted in the eventual stabilization of Tunisia’s finances. Judicially, French courts and law were established, which dealt with cases of foreign and French residents, as well as cases between Europeans and Tunisians. Islamic courts continued to function alongside the French legal system, dealing with cases between Tunisians.

The French also reformed Tunisian communications and education. All schools, including Islamic ones, were under the director of public education, who was a Frenchmen. In order to decrease the educational gap between French and Tunisians, a standard educational system was introduced. Franco-Arab schools were founded, in which instruction was in French and Arabic was taught as a second language. The most prestigious school was to become Hayreddin Pasha’s Sadiki College, whose competitive admissions and high educational standards almost guaranteed its graduates high political or economic positions.

Destour Party

The French effectively controlled the Tunisian state, despite its status as a protectorate, and occasional nationalist revolts against the occupiers had little impact at first. The first major attempt to form alternative political platforms was not made until the interwar period, when the Destour Constitutional Liberal Party (or Parti libéral constitutionnel), commonly known as Destour party was established and named for the Tunisian Constitution of 1861.

When, in 1920, the Destour party asked for the formation of a constitutional form of government granting all Tunisians the same rights, the leader of the Destour, Abdelaziz Thâalbi, was arrested by the French. By the use of such restrictive measures and some superficial reforms introduced to appease the opposition, the opponents of the government were, for a while, effectively controlled.

New-Destour Party

A lawyer, Habib Bourguiba, left the Destour Party in 1934 and, with some of his colleagues, established the Neo-Destour (New Constitutional Liberal Party or Nouveau Parti libéral constitutionnel) party, which was more assertive vis-à-vis the French. The Neo-Destour Party would soon replace the Destour Party and attract mass support in Tunisia. Sensing its importance, the French responded to the newly created party with fierce repression, arresting its leaders, but this only triggered more party activism.

The end of World War II increased demands for Tunisian independence, and the French, pressured by international forces and Tunisians, eventually conceded. With the prospect of approaching independence, frictions emerged within the Neo-Destour party, between Salah Ben Youssef, a pan-Arab leader and the secretary general of the party, and Habib Bourguiba, the party’s leader, who advocated a Western style of life. Backed by the Europeans, Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first President, following independence in 1957. His rival, Ben Youssef, went into exile, where he would be assassinated in 1961.