Neighbourly interest in the French elections

In Tunisia the official Facebook page of the moderately Islamist Nahda party urged Franco-Tunisians to vote massively for Hollande to "dégage" Sarkozy. 

Meriem Dhaouadi
15 May 2012

The Tunisian-French relationship is likely to usher in a new era marked by optimism following the Socialist Francois Hollande's ascendancy to power. The Muslim population including Tunisians in France provided around six million voters for the left as experts and polls had anticipated. In Tunisia the official Facebook page of the moderately Islamist Nahda party urged Franco-Tunisians to vote massively for Hollande to "dégage" Sarkozy. The Nahda Party garnered 4 out of the 10 seats of the Constituent Assembly reserved for Tunisians living in France in the last elections. 

Muslims from France’s former colonies closely followed the presidential elections on Sunday and Tunisian flags waved high alongside French flags in the Place de la Bastille in celebration of Hollande's victory. Tunisia was a French protectorate until 1956 when the decolonization war brought its independence. For more than six decades and under the rule of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, France greatly influenced the economic, political and cultural Tunisian landscape.  The cozy relations between successive French presidents and the former Tunisian dictators had in fact emptied out the entire political culture: robust one-party rule had little tolerance for political opposition of any kind, human rights or free expression. 

Although Tunisian immigrants have never been very welcome in France with high rates of unemployment, poverty and mediocre education, illegal immigrants still risk the journey on overcrowded boats to French soil after landing on Italian shores. The French embassy in downtown Tunis still attracts hundreds of women and men drawn by the 'French dream' to secure a better future and escape poverty. While transition to democracy seemed uncertain and volatile at best, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians chose to settle in the former colonizer’s land despite the growing anti-immigration sentiment in France. 

France’s initial stance to the Tunisian uprising was clearly articulated by the helpless French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie who offered to help Ben Ali authorities crack down on protestors to restore calm. The land of freedom soon reversed its attitude, to welcome the aspirations of the Tunisian people for democracy and dignity. Suddenly Nicolas Sarcozy rushed ahead of everyone else on January 15, 2011,after Ben Ali’s departure, to praise the Tunisian revolution. 

France ‘s foreign policy under the leadership of Hollande is likely not to differ radically from that of previous French governments. However, Tunisians have made it clear since they broke the barrier of fear, that they are looking for a genuine democracy that may be inspired by the older democracies but is 100 percent locally made. The mission civilisatrice that brought pro-western corrupt regimes to power which then failed and killed their own people, championed the advance of French interests in the region at the expanse of the Tunisian people’s basic demands of freedom, jobs and national dignity. This relationship plunged into disrepute as Tunisians challenged business-as-usual and triggered the Arab Awakening that has swept through the MENA region.

The newly elected French government should not replicate the same foreign policy failures committed by the Sarkozy government. A fresh challenge is likely to put the French government to the test again soon enough, about whether it would stand by the Tunisian people in their transition to democracy. The Ben Ali clan's frozen bank accounts and assets must be handed over to the Tunisian people so that we can reconstruct our economy and provide decent jobs for the 180,000 plus unemployed graduates.

I hope that the new government is paying attention to the changes that have swept through the people of North Africa who are motivated by the profound belief that change is inevitable in their relationships both in relation to their own policy makers and with their neighbouring countries as well.


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