By Ramzy Baroud
The visit by Tunisian President Kais Saied to France last week was intended to discuss bilateral relations, trade, etc. But it was also a missed opportunity, where Tunisia could have formally demanded an apology for the decades of French colonialism, which shattered the social and political fabric of this North African Arab nation from the late 19th century until independence in 1956 and even beyond.
A heated debate in the Tunisian parliament prior to Saied’s trip highlighted the significance of the issue to Tunisians, who are still reeling under the process of the socioeconomic and political transitions following the popular uprising in 2011. Sadly, the parliament rejected a motion put forward by the centrist Al-Karama coalition calling for a French apology, despite 15 hours of debate.
“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. Makhlouf is under no moral obligation to explain his motives. A French apology to Tunisia — and many other African countries that endured years of French colonialism — is long overdue.
Ravaged by a relentless economic crisis and still largely dependent on France as a foremost trade partner, Tunisia fears the consequences of such a just demand, which, if officially made, would also include a call for compensation as a result of the nearly 75 years of exploitation and the subsequent collective trauma suffered by several generations.
A particular statement made by Osama Khelifi, of the Qalb Tounes party, delineates the unfortunate reality that continues to govern the thinking of Tunisia’s political elites. “We are not going to feed Tunisians with such motions,” he said. Inconsequential to Khelifi, and others among the parties that rejected the motion, is that coming to terms with the past is a prerequisite for any nation that wishes to start anew. What would be the point of revolutions and revolutionary discourses if Tunisian politicians insisted on merely trying to get along with a status quo imposed on them by outside forces?
While Saied was paying his diplomatic dues to Paris, statues were tumbling down across the Western world; some of former slave owners, others of racist ideologues and the pioneers of colonialism. On June 7, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, was pulled down by protesters in the English city of Bristol. This was just one of the many monuments destroyed or defaced throughout the US and Europe.
However, across the English Channel, the French government remained obstinate in its refusal to take down any similar statues, as if insisting on its refusal to revisit — let alone take responsibility for — its sinister past, especially the bloody and tragic events that shattered the African continent.
Statues are erected to honor individuals for their great contributions. They are also an inspiration to future generations that they should try to emulate these presumably great individuals. France, however, remains the exception.
Unsurprisingly, French government officials are engaging in nonsensical arguments as to why statues, such as that of Jean-Baptiste Colbert — a white aristocrat who, during the 17th century reign of King Louis XIV, established the horrific “Black Code” rules, according to which black slaves in the colonies were to be treated — should remain intact. Macron himself has made it clear that “the Republic… will not remove any statues.”
The collective rethink underway in various Western nations, which greatly benefited from their historical exploitation of Africa, was ignited by last month’s brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of American police officers in Minneapolis. Spontaneous popular movements, led mostly by the youth, connected the dots between racism, slavery and colonialism. They took to the streets in their millions to demand change. Yet France’s political elites continue to embrace French exceptionalism, arguing that, unlike the American experience with race and slavery, French law was never, at any point in the past, purposely racist.
In truth, past arrogance — its “civilizing mission” — continues to define France’s attitudes toward the present. This is why the French colonial experience was particularly keen on composing a clever discourse to account for its exploitation of Africa and other regions in the world. In this skewed rationale, France’s invasion of Algeria in 1830 was dubbed something else entirely. Algeria was an “integral part” of French territory, they argued. Other countries, like Tunisia and Morocco, were made protectorates, ruled indirectly through corrupt local authorities. The rest of France’s African colonies were ravaged mercilessly by greedy French administrators.
Unlike other European experiences, the French colonial connection to Africa did not disintegrate entirely in the 20th century. Instead, it took on different forms, now known by the disparaging term “Francafrique.” This expression was introduced in 1955 to describe the “special relations” between France and the newly independent African countries, which became bound under what France called “cooperation agreements.” It was rightly understood that France was entering a new phase of colonialism in Africa: Neocolonialism.
Despite former French President Francois Hollande pledging to eradicate Francafrique and its practical meaning, little has changed. Indeed, France can be found in every aspect of life, whether political, military, economic or even cultural, in many African countries. In the cases of Mali and Libya, the French intervention has an even more crude manifestation: Domineering and violent.
To appreciate French neocolonialism in Africa, consider this: Fourteen African countries are still economically bound to France through the use of a special currency, the CFA franc, which was designed by Paris to manage the trade and economies of its former colonies. This jarring example of French neocolonialism in Africa is consistent with its colonial and racist past.
Whether France chooses to come to terms with its past is entirely a French affair. It is, however, the responsibility of Tunisia — and the whole of Africa — to confront France and other colonial and neocolonial regimes, not merely demanding apologies and compensation, but also insisting on a complete change of the present, unequal relations too.