x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Tunisia turmoil brings anti-French sentiment to a boil

There is anger among Tunisians and Maghrebins over their former colonial ruler's support for Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's regime and its failure to understand the nature of their uprising.

PARIS // No great powers of observation have been required to notice the anti-French sentiments of some of the protesters involved in the upheaval in Tunisia.

Among the banners seen prominently in photographs flashed around the world, one bore a slogan calling the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, an accomplice in the discredited dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

It took Mr Sarkozy, and much of France, the best part of a month to appreciate that more than half a century after Tunisia's independence, the former colonial power and its leaders were still viewed with suspicion by many of what were Mr Ben Ali's subjects.

The feeling extends from Tunis to the large Tunisian communities of Paris and such cities as Nice, Lyon, St Etienne and Lille. And it is shared by Maghrebins from or having family roots in Morocco and Algeria, free of French rule since 1956 and 1962 respectively.

More than 2.5 million immigrants from the Maghreb are thought to live in France but the number of people with North African roots is at least three times higher.

Tarek Mami, the director of the Paris-based FranceMaghreb radio station, who is of Tunisian origin, said: "There have been serious problems with French press coverage of events in Tunisia. Initially they reported the riots against unemployment or rising food prices but without any analysis.

"When it became obvious we were dealing with a social revolution, the French press again avoided deep analysis and sensationalised what was happening by dwelling on such things as the gold taken from the country by Ben Ali's wife."

Only later and still inadequately, Mr Mami felt, did the French mainstream media begin to catch up with the internet, especially social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, in offering a reasoned explanation of events.

Mr Mami, who estimates his station is heard by 120,000 French Arabs daily, blames the media shortcomings on a tendency to view North Africa through French or more generally western eyes.

Maghrebin observers in France also feel successive presidents - François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Mr Sarkozy - have approached the region with blinkered vision.

While France may pride itself on helping its former colonies improve education, health and infrastructure, its leaders are seen as ignoring the democratic aspirations of the people. This distrust is aggravated by the alienation felt by France's large immigrant population. There is widespread acceptance that those of Arab origin, even if born and educated in France, suffer discrimination in jobs and housing; Maghrebins watch with dismay the intermittent surges in popularity of the far-right, anti-immigration Front National.

Among the French, in turn, there is resentment at the lack of respect shown by immigrant families towards national values and institutions, from derisive whistling by French-Algerians when La Marseillaise is played at football stadiums to the supposed "Islamification" of society.

French officialdom's failure to understand the true nature of the Tunisian uprising was belatedly acknowledged by Mr Sarkozy in a press conference at the Elysée Palace this week.

The president admitted he had underestimated the depth of popular anger in Tunisia and the scale of support for the protest movement.

Earlier in the crisis, French ministers had enraged Tunisians opposed to Mr Ben Ali with comments supporting his regime.

Only when Mr Ben Ali was preparing to flee the country, after 23 years in power, did France join in international criticism of his government's heavy-handed response to protests.

Ministers had previously highlighted positive aspects of the regime's work. Mr Sarkozy's foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, went as far as to say France was prepared to make its internationally recognised security service skills available as the Tunisia authorities sought to quell the revolt.

Vincent Geisser, a specialist in Arab affairs at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, told France 24 television the French response to the events had been "unrealistic and shocking to many".

Now, in his attempt to make amends, Mr Sarkozy has promised emergency aid to the interim government. He said France's traditional closeness to Tunisia had left it unable to step back and take a clear view.

"Behind the emancipation of women, the drive for education and training, the economic dynamism, the emergence of a middle class, there was a despair, a suffering, a sense of suffocation," he said of life in Tunisia. "We have to recognise that we underestimated this."

Mr Sarkozy added that colonial powers lacked legitimacy when passing judgment on the internal affairs of former territories. "I do not want France to be likened to a country that has kept its colonial habits," he said.

Agence France-Presse has now reported that French public prosecutors have begun investigating the Parisian property interests of Mr Ben Ali and his entourage. The move follows the commencement of civil legal proceedings by three groups, including the Arab Commission for Human Rights, which estimate the value of these assets at €3.6 billion (Dh18.1 billion).

But it remains to be seen whether France's recognition of the clamour for freedom in Tunisia will be enough to impress its own Maghrebin communities, let alone the people of the North African state and its neighbours.

At Radio FranceMaghreb, Mr Mami said France would be judged by its actions. "It has a responsibility to show it is concerned about ordinary people in the region, and their right to freedom and justice, and not just French political and business interests," he said.