French Foreign Policy and Tunisia: Do Human Rights Matter?

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Pia Christina Wood, Dr. Wood is director of international studies and associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University. – The French government under President Jacques Chirac presents itself as a staunch and vocal supporter of democratization, human rights and political freedoms. In January 1999, Chirac outlined his foreign-policy agenda, which included “the principle of freedom, to ensure everywhere democracy and respect for the universal declaration of human rights.”1 But have the French government’s actions followed its rhetoric? Has France taken any action against autocratic regimes with which it has close ties but who have poor records on human rights? If so, under what circumstances and to what extent, and if not, why not? An examination of French foreign policy towards Tunisia provides a starting point to answer these questions.

France and Tunisia have strong economic, political and historical ties. Not only is Tunisia a former French colony, but its leading economic partner is France; the Tunisian community in France numbers 440,000; and France considers Tunisia still to be in its sphere of influence. In the past decade, however, France’s relationship with Tunisia has been characterized by ups and downs, mainly due to Tunisia’s record on human rights and its intolerance of dissent. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since he took over from Habib Bourguiba in a peaceful coup d’état in 1987, moved quickly to crush the Islamist movement in Tunisia. Not only did the Ben Ali government ban the Islamist party al-Nahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, but it sharply curtailed political and press freedoms and harassed and jailed hundreds of political opponents. The French press, along with numerous French and international human-rights groups, has been extremely vocal in condemning the Tunisian government and President Ben Ali. They have also criticized the French government’s unwillingness to condemn more forcefully abuses of human rights and to apply greater pressure on Ben Ali to allow more political freedom. This domestic pressure has at times been instrumental in persuading the French government to voice criticisms, albeit discreetly, of the Ben Ali government.

When considering the flow of French foreign policy towards Tunisia over the past ten years, however, it is apparent that other concerns have been given priority. In the early 1990s, concern over the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist attacks on French soil and Algeria’s descent into civil war led French governments under both François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac to give strong support to Ben Ali. He was seen as a bulwark against instability in the region and an important safeguard of French and European commercial and strategic interests. In addition, there was little disagreement that Ben Ali’s stewardship of Tunisia’s economy has been outstanding. Economic progress, political stability and French national-security interests were considered sufficient to ignore the lack of democratic political reforms, the censorship of the media and the problems of human rights. In the late 1990s, as the Ben Ali government intensified its crackdowns on political dissent, and the French press and human-rights groups responded with a vociferous campaign against it, the French government’s foreign policy began to shift. Relations cooled between the two governments as French officials criticized, albeit discreetly, Tunisia’s actions. This shift came to an abrupt end with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. French foreign-policy priorities demanded that every effort be made to combat Al Qaeda, the Taliban and terrorism worldwide. Support from Ben Ali and other “moderate” Arab governments was considered crucial.


Three major events in the early 1990s led the French government to reconsider its policies toward the Maghreb. The first was the 1991 Gulf War. President François Mitterrand’s eventual decision to participate militarily in the coalition against Iraq undermined France’s “politique arabe.” Made famous by Charles de Gaulle and continued by subsequent presidents, this policy claimed a special friendship with the Arab world, an active French role in the region, and a willingness to differentiate France from the two superpowers, particularly the United States. But the French decision to join the American-led coalition against Iraq led many Arab countries, Tunisia among them, to criticize France’s support for U.S. policies and proclaim that its “politique arabe” had been abandoned. Government officials and policy analysts in France reached similar conclusions.2 Jean-Pierre Chevènement, then minister of defense, resigned and strongly denounced France’s participation in the war. Then French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas stated in an interview in March 1991 with Le Monde, “It would be more correct to talk about the end of a double myth. Evoking the Arab world is a myth in itself, a ‘politique arabe’ is another.”3

In an effort to restore its battered reputation as a “friend” to the Arab world in the aftermath of the Gulf War, French officials, in the early 1990s, replaced the phrase “politique arabe” with the term “la politique méditerranéenne.” At the same time, France began to emphasize the importance of formulating policies toward the Mediterranean countries within a multilateral framework. In particular, the French government concentrated on promoting linkages between the European Union and the Mediterranean countries and de-emphasizing solely French initiatives. France’s support and sponsorship of the 1995 Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative was part of the effort to restore France’s credibility and leadership in the region through the European Union. Morever, France wanted to enlist the economic support of the EU to address the economic problems facing the Maghreb.

Two additional events that shaped French policy toward the Maghreb and Tunisia in the early 1990s were the outbreak of violence in Algeria and the wave of terrorist attacks in France. The Mitterrand government did not appear to realize the seriousness of the political situation in Algeria until the government annulled the 1992 parliamentary elections to prevent a victory by the Islamist FIS party (front islamique du salut). As Algeria slid into civil war, France and Europe continued to support the secular government against the “non-democratic Islamic fundamentalists.” Greater support for King Hassan II of Morocco and President Ben Ali of Tunisia was also forthcoming, as they were seen as bulwarks against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The escalating violence in Algeria reached French soil in December 1994, when radical Islamists hijacked an Air France aircraft. In July 1995, the GIA (groupe islamique armée) claimed responsibility for two bomb explosions, one in the St. Michel metro station and the other near the Arc de Triomphe. French fears of Islamic extremists in France led to greater security cooperation with Tunisia and a willingness to overlook Ben Ali’s repression of the Islamist movement al-Nahda and other opposition groups.


Franco-Tunisian relations under President Mitterrand were not overly friendly. Certainly, economic ties between Tunisia and France continued to be extensive: In 1994, France was Tunisia’s leading commercial partner with 27.4 percent of Tunisian imports originating in France and about the same percentage of Tunisian exports going to France.4 French enterprises in Tunisia numbered 327, employing 30,000 people; the French government allocated 441 million French francs in financial aid to Tunisia, and some 600,000 French tourists visited Tunisia. There was also cooperation between the two governments to combat terrorist activities, illegal immigration and drug trafficking. (In 1992, the brother of Ben Ali was convicted of drug-trafficking offenses in France and condemned to ten years in a French prison.) A number of disputes continued to plague relations between the two countries. These included compensation for French-owned property taken by the Tunisian government at independence and the Tunisian laws regarding custody of children of divorced/separated French-Tunisian couples.

The election of Jacques Chirac to the presidency in 1995 was perceived as an opportunity by both governments to settle outstanding disputes and improve relations. Indeed they made a good start.

The new minister of interior, Jean-Louis Debré, visited Tunis in September and declared that France, Tunisia and the other Maghreb countries should form a common front against armed Islamist terrorists.5 On October 5, Chirac made an official state visit to Tunisia accompanied by an impressive entourage that included Philippe Séguin, president of the National Assembly, Hervé de Charette, minister of foreign affairs, and Jean-Louis Debré, minister of the interior, among others. Throughout the numerous speeches given over the two-day visit, Chirac expressed unambiguous support for Ben Ali. He explained his visit in the following terms:

I wanted to bear strong witness to the traditional and renewed friendship between our two countries. I wanted to see the progress accomplished in the country, exemplary in its diversity and its openness to the world. France attaches importance to the stability of the Maghreb and Tunisia, which plays a capital role in this region of the world.6

Chirac then characterized Tunisia as “a pole of stability and peace” on the path to modernization, democratization and social peace, calling on both countries to “fight together the forces of regression.” On the economic front, Chirac stated that “we are determined to remain the foremost economic and financial partner of Tunisia” and announced that France would increase the amount of aid to Tunisia from 594 million French francs (FF) in 1994 to FF 1.1 billion in 1995.7 Chirac carefully omitted any mention of human rights but simply remarked that the best response to fundamentalism and extremism was through “economic reform, social justice and political openness.” He went on to say, “In this sense, the Tunisian experience has been able to find well-adapted responses.”8

Chirac’s strong support for Ben Ali was based on a number of factors. At the top of the list was the French government’s strong desire to prevent the spillover of the Algerian crisis to other countries in the region. Ben Ali’s strong-arm tactics, including the banning of Islamic parties and the jailing of Islamic and other political opponents, had kept Islamic fundamentalism from gaining any political influence in the country. Political stability in Tunisia was considered essential for French and regional security as well as for continued French economic investment. Cooperation with Tunisia in the fight against Islamistsponsored terrorism in France itself was an equally compelling reason. Finally, with French support, Tunisia was the first North African country to sign an association accord with the European Union in July 1995. France and the EU planned this to be the first of many accords to be signed with Mediterranean countries as part of a grand Euro-Mediterranean partnership. Thus, they had a vested interest in making the accord with Tunisia work well. According to Javier Solana, president of the EU Council of Ministers, “We appreciate the true value of the will and courage of Tunisia.”9


On November 28, 1995, the EU and twelve Mediterranean countries signed the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative (EMPI, also known as the Barcelona Declaration) at the EU’s Barcelona conference.10 While the EU Commission had already proposed a new Mediterranean policy in 1990, Europe’s attention had been diverted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dramatic changes in Eastern and Central Europe and the outbreak of ethnic violence in Yugoslavia. By 1992, the violence in Algeria and the possible consequences of escalating instability refocused Europe’s attention on the Mediterranean, particularly the Maghreb. According to the European Council, “The southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean as well as the Middle East are geographical areas in relation to which the Union has a strong interest both in terms of security and social stability.”11 For Europe, the deteriorating situation in the Maghreb could have numerous negative consequences. Islamic fundamentalism could spread and undermine stable and pro-Western governments in the region, European access to North African natural-gas supplies (25 percent of European consumption) might be jeopardized, and conflicts within or between the North African countries could lead to a wave of refugees attempting to enter European countries, particularly France, Italy and Spain. The European Commission specifically addressed this last threat on a number of occasions: “Migratory pressures could easily lead to harmful conflicts, as much for international relations as for the immigrant populations themselves, if a planned cooperation with the concerned countries is not set up to manage them systematically.”12 France, Spain and Italy took the lead in arguing forcefully in favor of the EMPI as a comprehensive economic and political response to these security issues. In addition, they believed in “re-balancing” the EU’s relations from Germany’s sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe to their own sphere of influence in the southern Mediterranean.

In the post-Cold War era, the EU’s definition of security had shifted to focus on problems of poverty, economic dislocation, political reforms, human rights, immigration, international terrorism, international crime and ethnic and inter-state conflicts including the Israeli-Palestinian (Arab) conflict. The EMPI was an ambitious three-part document that sought to create an all-encompassing political/security, economic and cultural partnership among the countries on both sides of the Mediterranean. The vision of the EU was to create a cooperative security structure with a code of conduct adhered to by all countries and including democratization, development of the rule of law, respect for human rights, pluralism and diversity, settlement of disputes by peaceful means, and the right to self-determination. EU members also considered the EMPI as a vehicle for Europe to play a larger role in the Middle East peace process, dominated by the United States. The fact that the United States was deliberately excluded from membership in the EMPI was an immediate stumbling block to achieving this goal.

The economic component of the EMPI centered on the gradual introduction of a vast free-trade area in the industrial arena by 2010. The area would be established through bilateral association agreements between the EU and the Mediterranean countries, exemplified by the June 1995 EU-Tunisian agreement. The EU would allow free access to its industrial markets, but in exchange, the non-EU Mediterranean countries would be required to gradually eliminate their tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade against European industrial goods and services. This promises to be costly to the non-EU Mediterranean governments because a large percentage of their revenue is derived from customs dues and tariffs. At the same time, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy would still be protected by quotas for agricultural products from the non-EU Mediterranean countries. The EU pledged to increase its financial aid to help with the transition costs (MEDA, Mésures d’adjustement) to 4.685 billion euros over a five-year period.

Despite its ambitious plan, the EMPI quickly ran into both political and economic difficulties. Security discussions that focused on the Middle East peace process quickly bogged down since both the United States and new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were opposed to a European role. On the economic front, negotiations between the EU and other Mediterranean countries ran into difficulties over the EU’s refusal to open its agricultural markets to Maghreb products. By the end of 1996, it was clear that the lofty political goals of the EMPI were unattainable and the economic goals unrealistic, at least in the short term.


While France was one of the leading architects of the EMPI, it had no intention of giving up its special relationship with the Maghreb countries. France viewed the EU as an important forum for gaining support for two of France’s major objectives in the region: stability and greater financial and development aid. At the same time, France continued to pursue an active national role in the Maghreb and to emphasize its bilateral political and economic relations. The positive visit of President Chirac to Tunisia in 1995 set the stage for an eventual visit of President Ben Ali to France and greater economic cooperation. The major trouble spot continued to be Tunisia’s record on human rights.

Throughout the early 1990s, the French government gave little official attention to the Ben Ali government’s weak record on human rights. Despite the banning of the al-Nahda (Islamist) party, the censorship of the press and, according to Amnesty International, widespread arrests of suspected al-Nahda sympathizers and their torture and ill-treatment, the French government continued to support the Tunisian government for reasons discussed earlier. The French government, itself concerned over the possible spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the violence in Algeria, was unwilling to criticize openly Ben Ali’s heavy-handed tactics in his quest to crush the Islamic movement. The argument put forth by the Ben Ali government that democracy needed to be introduced gradually or Tunisia would follow Algeria’s descent into instability and violence carried weight with French and European governments.

Moreover, Tunisia’s successful economic performance and social progress muted international criticism. On these two fronts, Tunisia was considered a shining example with a list of impressive accomplishments: a rank of 65 out of 174 on the U.N. Index of Human Development, one of the highest rates of life expectancy, literacy and home-ownership in the Arab world, one of the lowest rates of population growth in the region, a large and growing middle class, an unprecedented record on women’s rights in the Arab world, and a very low percentage (6 percent) of people living below the poverty line. The Mitterrand government, among others in Europe, put high priority on domestic and regional stability in the Maghreb and was reluctant to protest against the apparent trade-off between economic growth and political repression in Tunisia.

The newly elected Chirac government was equally determined to support Ben Ali, as was made clear during Chirac’s state visit to Tunisia in October 1995. However, between 1995 and 1998, the Ben Ali government increased its repressive measures against opposition leaders. This led to a surge in the intensity of the criticism of the Tunisian regime and of French support for Ben Ali by the French press and French and international human-rights groups. As domestic criticism grew, the French government assumed a more nuanced position towards Ben Ali.

Only days after Chirac ended his state visit to Tunisia, Mohammed Mouada, leader of the non-Islamic opposition Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS) was arrested. His arrest occurred the day after his highly critical letter to Ben Ali was made public. In it, he denounced the repressive measures used to control the society, deplored the return to a “regime of a hegemonic and dominating single party,” and put forward a plan to move the country toward democracy with a functioning multi-party system.13 Mouada was charged with having harmful contacts with foreign agents, receiving money from Libyan officials, and endangering Tunisia’s national security. In February 1996, he was sentenced to eleven years in jail. Kehmais Chamari, the deputy leader of the MDS, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in July 1996 for “divulgation du secret de l’instruction” during Mouada’s trial.14 Both the trials and the sentences were condemned by numerous international human-rights groups including Amnesty International, the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), the French League of Human Rights, the World Organization Against Torture, and the European Parliament (EP).

In a close vote of 97 in favor and 91 opposed, the EP passed a resolution in May 1996 that expressed concern over the deterioration of the human-rights situation in Tunisia and the continued persecution of political opponents and their families.15 The French EP delegates split along party lines. The socialists and communists voted in favor of denouncing the repressive practices of the government, while the delegates representing French parties on the right such as the RPR voted against the resolution. In December, international pressure was partly responsible for the release of both Mouada and Charmari and the decision to grant a presidential pardon to Najib Hosni. Hosni, a prominent lawyer who often defended Islamists in court, had been sentenced to eight years in prison.16 Their release, however, did not portend a greater tolerance by the Tunisian government of political opponents. Arrests and harassment continued.

In addition to drawing attention to specific cases of human-rights violations, international human-rights organizations published highly critical reports of the Tunisian government every year. Amnesty International’s 1995 annual report “described widespread and systematic human-rights abuses and argued that internal commissions of inquiry by the authorities were ineffectual.”17 The LTDH’s 1995 annual report “included accounts of violations of freedom of the press, the illegal detention of suspects, the banning of political parties, and poor conditions inside prisons.”18 Reports from 1996-98 from Amnesty International, the Arab Commission of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues and the U.N. Committee Against Torture all criticized Tunisia’s record and commitment to human rights, citing cases of torture, harassment of government critics, physical abuse of prisoners and severe restrictions on the freedom of the press. Joining the organizations in their criticisms was the French press. Headlines from Le Monde and Libération included, “The attacks on human rights tarnish the regime’s [Ben Ali’s] image,” “Human rights held up to ridicule in Tunisia,” and “Ben Ali, an enemy of human rights, visits Paris.”19

The Tunisian government strongly denied the veracity of the human-rights organizations’ reports and allegations, claiming that Tunisia was a democratic country where human rights were respected. Tunisian Minister of Justice Sadok Chaabane argued that there may have been some abuses in 1990 and 1991 in response to the “fanatic” [al Nahda] movement’s efforts to overthrow the government, but

Tunisia’s leadership never tried to hide those abuses. President Ben Ali formed an investigative committee and took steps to punish those responsible and to avoid future violations. The promotion of the values of human rights has become a basic component of school curricula and of the training of law-enforcement cadres.20

The Tunisian government responded to the criticisms with both indignation and attacks on the leaders of the organizations. When the president of the FIDH, Patrick Baudouin, addressed a critical, open letter to Ben Ali in May 1996, he was refused entrance into the country. A government communiqué to Agence France Press stated that “the text constitutes a serious and shocking attack on the truth, unworthy of the president of an international organization who by his hysterical conduct and total outrageousness has ruined what was left of his credibility.”21 In response to Amnesty International’s 1998 negative report on Tunisia, the Tunisian embassy issued a communiqué stating that the president of the organization was “under the unhealthy influence of Islamic terrorists and professional liars” and had “lost sight of the humanitarian objectives that he had been elected to defend.”22 The foreign press was dealt with by the censoring or banning of offending newspapers and the expulsion of journalists.

The increasingly vocal criticism of the Tunisian government by human-rights organizations and the French and international press could not be completely ignored by the French or Tunisian governments. In fact, Ben Ali postponed his official visit to France, scheduled for September 1996, amid speculation that he did not wish to encounter public criticism there, particularly over the arrests of Mouada and Chamari. His visit, rescheduled for January 1997, was postponed again because of Ramadan. According to Le Monde, a third date was agreed to for May because the release of Mouada and Chamari “opened the door for the visit of President Ben Ali to France.”23 This visit was postponed because Chirac had decided to dissolve the National Assembly and hold elections. In August, Hubert Védrine, the new French minister of foreign affairs after the socialist electoral victory in June, made an official visit to Tunisia. It appeared clear that one of Védrine’s objectives was to show support and smooth the way for a visit by Ben Ali to France. According to Védrine, there were “no real problems” between the two countries, and he assured Ben Ali that France would continue to support the economic development in Tunisia.24 According to Le Monde, Védrine did not bring up the issue of human rights.25

On October 20, 1997, Ben Ali finally visited Paris. The French press and international and French human-rights groups mounted a vigorous campaign denouncing Tunisia’s record on human rights. Patrick Baudouin, president of the FIDH, asked whether TTT stood for “Tunisie, terre de tourisme or Tunisie, terre de torture” (Tunisia, land of tourism or Tunisia, land of torture). In addition, they demanded that the French government place the issue squarely on the political agenda. It was soon apparent that while the French government felt it could not ignore the human-rights issue, it would broach the issue in a discreet manner. As one French official remarked, “Discretion is the most effective way to deal with this type of question.” The Quai d’Orsay further clarified the government’s position:

For all the Tunisians who are looking to the West and who live between Algeria and Libya, the number one problem is fundamentalism. They are ready to support the fight against fundamentalism with tough measures. What they want from us is not that we give them lessons in human rights. They want help in attaching themselves economically and politically to Europe in a way that will guarantee . . . a gradual democratization.26

It is true that the reception for Ben Ali was held at the residence of the president of the National Assembly instead of at the more prestigious palace of Versailles and that the Tunisian president was not invited to address the National Assembly, as had been the case for King Hassan II of Morocco. However, these diplomatic signals of disapproval were mitigated by the praise and support given to Ben Ali by President Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

The emphasis of the two-day visit was on support for and deepening of the economic ties between the two countries. Chirac congratulated Ben Ali on the “exemplary success” of Tunisia’s experience over the past 10 years. Although the newly elected socialist government under Prime Minister Jospin had taken office with a promise to install a more ethical and moral process of government, it was apparent from Jospin’s remarks that the Tunisian government would be treated carefully. “The performance of your [Tunisia’s] economy, as well as the security found in Tunisia, has created the conditions for a long-lasting and confident development that France will continue to support.” Jospin went on to note that France strongly favored Tunisia’s economic agreement with the EU, which was based on “mutual respect.”27

In addition to the speeches, agreements were signed that would provide substantial funds for Tunisian businesses to evolve to European standards, infrastructure modernization, professional education and support for French investments in Tunisia. According to Jeune Afrique, this “partnership” accord, which included a financial and an investment-guarantee agreement, was the first of its kind signed with a Mediterranean country; the terms were particularly favorable to Tunisia.28 A resolution to the contentious issue of the sale of French-owned property in Tunisia was also reached. It was agreed that French owners could sell their property from the colonial era and would be allowed to repatriate the proceeds without restrictions. For its part, the Tunisian government announced that it planned to buy three French-made tugboats and eight planes from Airbus. A contract for the installation of a telephone network was awarded to Alcatel, and the Rothschild bank was chosen to manage the privatization of two Tunisian cemeteries.29

While neither Chirac nor Jospin was willing to dwell on the issue of human rights, they could not ignore the barrage of domestic criticism. La Croix commented, “The president and the prime minister could not pass over the question [of human rights]. But they did the minimum.”30 Chirac obliquely stated, “The rule of law (l’état de droit) and democracy can make better progress in a country where violence is disappearing due to reforms,” while Jospin encouraged Tunisia to open itself up to “democratic values.”31 Whether more was said behind closed doors remains unknown. Ben Ali, for his part, stated, “Do not listen to the fundamentalists. There are no political detainees in Tunisia. Give me one example.”32 In an interview with columnist Georgie Anne Geyer in 1998, Ben Ali responded to the question of political prisoners:

Let us be clear about the fact that there are no political prisoners in Tunisia. All those in prison in Tunisia are there for common law crimes. They have been judged by the ordinary courts in accordance with ordinary procedures and in application of the law, and have been found guilty of established actions involving in most cases terrorism or aggravated violence . . . . It is true that this has been the case with some who belonged to the fundamentalist movement. Those who respect the law in Tunisia are not disturbed, as we live under the rule of law. We are, quite obviously, particularly committed to safe-guarding and promoting human rights.33

For the French government, national security interests and the economic benefits of maintaining close ties with the Ben Ali government outweighed dissatisfaction over its record on human rights and democratization. In 1996, France was Tunisia’s number-one commercial partner in exports, imports, private direct investment and loans. Only in the number of tourists did France fall to second place behind Germany.34 According to then-French ambassador Jacques Lanxade, Tunisia was the recipient of the most aid by France per person.35 Equally important in the French analysis was Tunisia’s stability, its status as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, its example of success for the EMPI, and its domestic economic and social accomplishments. Even the strongest critics had to acknowledge Tunisia’s remarkable performance in the protection of women’s rights, the rapid decline of infant mortality, the increase in life expectancy, the doubling of per capita income, the wide availability of running water and electricity throughout the country, and a growing middle class.36 Nevertheless, the issues of human rights, freedom of the press and democratization would continue to plague relations between Tunisia and France.


In October 1999, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Tunisia. Ben Ali was elected to a third presidential term in a process that the Tunisian government and controlled press argued was free, fair and democratic. Two candidates from small parties ran against Ben Ali, who won with 99.44 percent of the vote. In covering the elections, the French press and human-rights organizations leveled harsh criticisms against the Ben Ali government. The drumbeat of their denunciations of Tunisia’s record on human rights continued. In addition, numerous newspapers characterized the Tunisian electoral process as neither free nor democratic. Articles similar to the one published in Le Monde could be found throughout the French press:

. . . on the occasion of the third mandate sought by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on October 24, Tunisia still lives under the dictatorship of one man, his clan and his party. The system Ben Ali, . . . is known: censorship of the press, total absence of a free public life, despite democratic appearances, constant surveillance of the population and brutal police repression of all opposition . . . . The Tunisians deserve much better.37

Also in October, a highly critical book entitled Notre ami Ben Ali: L’envers du “miracle tunisien,” appeared to much fanfare in the French press. The authors, Nicolas Beau and Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, painted a grim picture of the lack of political freedom and the presence of human-rights abuses in Tunisia and condemned past and present French support for Ben Ali.

The reality, here it is: France tolerates at two hours by plane, a seemingly benign dictatorship . . . . Tunisia has become a totalitarian state: the smallest criticism becomes an affair of the state, citizens live in fear of an arbitrary police and the deprivation of their passports . . . .38

Not surprisingly, political relations between the two countries suffered as the criticisms mounted. The Ben Ali government placed an embargo on most French newspapers (Le Monde, Liberation, Le Point, Le Figaro, Le Monde diplomatique), and the television channel France 2 was not allowed to broadcast. In January 2000, the French government announced that Lionel Jospin’s official trip to Tunisia, planned for later that month, would be postponed due to scheduling difficulties. Disbelief and scepticism greeted the official excuse.

In an effort to improve relations, Védrine visited Tunis February 6-7, 2000, with the difficult task of explaining that freedom of the press in France meant exactly that. According to Le Monde, Tunisian officials complained bitterly about the French press, arguing that it had surpassed acceptable limits, had insulted and defamed the president of Tunisia, did not accurately represent the state of political freedoms, and only gave one side of any event.39 During his visit, Védrine characterized Franco-Tunisian relations as “solid and constructive” and praised “the remarkable economic success achieved by Tunisia in a difficult regional context.” But he also expressed the hope that “the evolution of the country in terms of public freedoms would continue and consolidate.”40 As a further indication of cooperation, two accords were signed between the Tunisian government and the French development agency for credits of 53 million euros, primarily for professional training and support for small businesses in Tunisia.41 In another gesture of support, Chirac, Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement and Philippe Séguin attended the funeral of Tunisia’s past president, Habib Bourguiba, in April. Interestingly, the French delegation was the only high-level Western delegation at the funeral. However, political relations between the two countries remained cool, and the furor engendered over the Ben Brik affair exacerbated the tension further.

In March, following several critical articles of the Tunisian government, Taoufiq Ben Brik, Tunis correspondent for the Swiss newpaper La Croix, was charged with “diffusion of false information and defamation of the country’s institutions.” After the government confiscated his passport, barred him from leaving the country, harassed his family and jailed his brother, Ben Brik decided to stage a hunger strike. The case attracted unprecedented coverage in both the international and French press. Chirac personally called Ben Ali to express his concern about the affair; in turn, the Tunisian government accused France of conducting a malicious campaign to discredit it.42 Prominent coverage by the Tunisian press was given to denunciations of France.43 As international pressure built and discontent within Tunisia surfaced, Ben Ali was forced to back down in May. Ben Brik’s passport was renewed, his right to travel was reinstated, and his brother’s three-month jail sentence was revoked. Moreover, to the astonishment of many, Ben Ali took the unprecedented step of appearing on state television, where he criticized Tunisian newspapers for not covering the Ben Brik story.44 The French government then issued a visa for Ben Brik to travel to France “for humanitarian reasons and to contribute to the calming of tensions.” Védrine further clarified that “we are not giving a visa to Ben Brik in order for him to continue his fight in France.” The Quai d’Orsay later explained that Védrine’s statement did not mean that the French government would interfere with Ben Brik’s right to express himself publicly or to continue his hunger strike if he desired.45

In the year following the Ben Brik affair, political relations remained tense. Strong French support for Ben Ali at the political level, demonstrated during Chirac’s 1995 visit to Tunisia, was noticeably absent. Human rights remained the thorn in the relationship as the Ben Ali government alternated between loosening and tightening its controls over public freedoms. In late May 2000, the Tunisia government returned the passport of Moncef Marzouki, ex-president of the LTDH and member of the banned National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT). In June, Abdelmoumem Belanes and Fahem Boukkadous, accused of belonging to the Worker’s Communist party (PCOT), were released from prison through a presidential pardon. In April 2001, Ben Ali appointed Shaheddine Maaoui as the new minister in charge of human rights and communication. He took office announcing his opposition to the harassment of those defending human rights, his willingness to meet with leaders of human-rights organizations, and his intention to liberalize the press.46 But these signs of openness were accompanied by crackdowns. In December 2000, Marzouki was given a 12-month prison sentence for “spreading false information with the aim of disturbing public order.”47 In June 2001, human-rights activist Sihem Bensedrine was jailed on charges of “defamation of the judiciary” and “disseminating false information with the aim of disturbing public order.”48

The response by the Jospin government, while still careful, was more noticeably negative. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the sentencing of Marzouki in December 2000 did not go in the direction of strengthening public freedoms, which France supported. In February 2001, Védrine declared that France “was concerned with the increasing use of violence by the Tunisian security forces against the defenders of human rights.”49 In May 2001, Charles Josselin, minister delegate of cooperation, visited Tunis in an effort to improve the battered relations. Charged with bringing a message amical from Jacques Chirac, he stated that “this situation of non-relations is not satisfactory, it is not normal that there is no dialogue between France and Tunisia; its resumption is necessary.”50 The fact that the French Socialist Party decided in April to freeze its relations with the Tunisian party in power (RCD, Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique) over the state of human rights did not make his task any easier. In addition, Josselin’s breakfast meeting with leaders of Tunisian human-rights organizations was denounced by the Ben Ali government as “a highly unfriendly gesture.” Nevertheless, Josselin made it clear that he had addressed the issue of human rights with the Tunisian minister of foreign affairs and the secretary general of the RCD.

Despite the escalating tension over the issue of human rights, the close economic relationship between the two countries continued. In 2000-2001, France remained Tunisia’s number-one commercial partner, and Tunisia is one of only four countries (Algeria, Morocco, Vietnam) that benefit from all French development-aid programs. On Tunisia’s national day in March 2001, Chirac sent a congratulatory message to Ben Ali: “France attaches great importance to its relations with Tunisia, . . . and I salute its remarkable economic success.”51 In addition, France’s support for Tunisia’s efforts to implement the 1995 association agreement with the EU continues to be unwavering. The European Union, with France as its most influential member when dealing with the Maghreb, also concentrated on Tunisia’s economic successes rather than on its democratic deficits.


Although the European Parliament passed a resolution in 1996 criticizing Tunisia’s human-rights record and two more resolutions expressing concern at the deterioration in human rights in 2000, the member governments have been reluctant to take further action. In 1998, the EU-Tunisia association agreement was formally initiated after ratification by all member states. Despite some discussions, the EU decided not to criticize Tunisia’s human-rights record but to concentrate instead on its internal stability and its social and economic successes. By the beginning of 2000, it was clear that the Euro-Med partnership was neither a political nor an economic success. Europe’s political ambition to play a role in the Arab-Israeli peace process was completely blocked by

U.S. and Israeli opposition along with the rising violent confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians. On the economic front, problems were also evident. Only four individual association agreements between the EU and the Mediterranean countries had taken effect, a far lower number than had been anticipated. The EU had also agreed to provide 3,475 million euros in financial assistance (MEDA I) for the period 1995-99. But at the end of the time period, only 26 percent of the funds had been given out, due to bureaucratic hurdles. It took on average 8.5 years between the decision to allocate funds and their actual allocation.52

Under the French presidency, the EU decided to give a “new push” to the Euro-Med partnership at the fourth conference of the Euro-Med ministers of foreign affairs in November 2000 in Marseilles. Syria and Lebanon refused to attend, which effectively stymied discussions concerning security and the Middle East peace process. The EU did agree to increase its financial assistance to the Mediterranean countries to 5.35 billion euros as part of MEDA II (new protocol in 1999) and to streamline the process to allow for a faster allocation of funds. Overall, however, the conference did not accomplish a great deal. The fifth Euro-Med conference held April 22-23 in Valencia, Spain, was also disappointing. The conference was dominated by the ongoing violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Syria and Lebanon boycotted the event to protest the Israeli military operations in the West Bank. There was agreement over a Plan of Action to relaunch the Barcelona process and an association accord was signed between Algeria and the EU. But, as Miguel Nadal, Spanish minister for European Affairs, noted: “The Mediterranean continues to be a sea of divisions rather than a sea of integration.”53

It is in this context that the relationship between the EU and Tunisia must be viewed. Tunisia stands out as one of the success stories of the Euro-Med partnership and is aggressively pursuing the implementation of its association agreement. According to Fathi Merdassi, minister of international cooperation and foreign investment, “We are at least two years ahead of schedule in meeting many of the provisions of the agreement.” Robert Houliston, director of the European Commission delegation in Tunis, confirmed this assessment:

The European Union is very satisfied with the agreement, as Tunisia continues to meet its obligations and maintain its pace of progress. Most recently, Tunisia has started dismantling import tariffs on sensitive goods that are also manufactured domestically.54

Despite criticisms over human rights, support for Tunisia from the EU Commission and member governments continued. In June 2001, Chris Patton, European commissioner for foreign relations, visited Tunisia and clearly stated that, “the EU will continue to give all the support and assistance to Tunisia in order for it to pursue its economic reforms and to continue to maintain its active role in the Euro-Med partnership.”55 While Patton did raise the issue of human rights and expressed European support for the LTDH with Tunisian officials, the discussions concentrated on economic cooperation. This approach would be dramatically reinforced by the events of September 11.


The attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, radically transformed foreign policy worldwide. Particularly in the United States and among the members of the European Union, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and prevention of further terrorist attacks dominated the foreign-policy debate and agenda. While condemnation of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and military action against them followed swiftly, the United States and the Europeans also reached out immediately to Arab governments. In their view, the “war on terror” required the support and assistance of the rest of the world, particularly the Arab countries.

With the fight against terrorism as its most immediate priority, the French government moved quickly to contact its three former colonies in the Maghreb to discuss cooperation. On October 1, Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine met with Ben Ali in Tunis, where they announced that the two countries would “combat terrorism in all its forms and intensify their consultations to achieve this end.”56 In the same month, French Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant also visited Tunis to discuss with Tunisian officials bilateral efforts against terrorism and other forms of cooperation. On November 16, the spokesperson at the Elysée Palace announced that President Chirac would visit Tunis, Rabat and Algiers December 1-2, 2001. The message was clear: the French government considered Ben Ali’s support in the fight against terrorism far more important than concerns over human rights and freedom the press. Although overstated, there was a degree of truth in the commentary by Tuquoi Jean Pierre of Le Monde: “At the hour of the international coalition against terrorism, . . . President Ben Ali could again be associated with.”57

For his part, Ben Ali was one of the first Arab leaders to declare publicly his support for the United States and his willingness to assist in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, he – and, even more vocally, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria – pointed out that the countries of the Maghreb faced their own internal terrorist problems and had not received a great deal of support from the West.58 The government-controlled newspaper La Presse de Tunisie argued that Western European governments allowed numerous terrorists to live in their countries. In particular, it accused the leader of the banned Islamist al-Nahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, given asylum in London, of supporting international terrorism and having links with Osama bin Laden.59

In a speech on October 31, during the visit of Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi to Tunis, Ben Ali rejected all forms of terrorism and reminded the audience that throughout the past ten years he had not only warned of the danger of terrorism but had also proposed that the international community work together to combat it. In response, Ciampi stated that security worldwide depended on a rejection of terrorism by all and praised Tunisia as a country “equally advanced in social pluralism, freedom of individual choices, the condition of women, and the respect for diversity.”60

Jacques Chirac’s visit to Tunisia in December followed in the same vein. On December 1-2, Chirac conducted a whirlwind visit to Tunis, Algiers and Rabat, ostensibly to exchange views on the international situation created by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. However, the trip was also designed to show French support for the three leaders and to reinforce political ties to three Muslim countries whose cooperation is important in any struggle against radical Islamic terrorism. Although Chirac only stayed three hours in Tunis, his praise for Ben Ali was unstinting. At a joint press conference, he characterized Franco-Tunisian relations as excellent and extolled the “astonishing economic and social success registered by Tunisia under the guidance of President Ben Ali.” Chirac went on to state that the two leaders shared similar views on terrorism, Tunisia could play a leading role in the “dialogue between cultures,” and Ben Ali should be given a great deal of credit for Tunisia’s success in combating terrorists at home. “The fight against terrorism is a profound conviction for President Ben Ali. The position of Tunisia of refusing religious intolerance and fundamentalism is completely exemplary and merits emphasis.”61

The cordiality of Chirac’s visit, the closeness of the bilateral relationship, the important role assigned to Tunisia by Chirac in the struggle against terrorism, and the two leaders’ similar views on the need to restart the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were pointed out extensively in the Tunisian press.

At least in the short run, the events of September 11 have changed the context in which France views its relationship with Tunisia. France’s foreign policy has shifted back to public support for Ben Ali, who in the French view is willing and able to take part in the fight against terrorism. In December, the Tunisian government arrested and charged three Tunisians of terrorism and links to Osama bin Laden.62 The explosion of a truck outside the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, killing 16 people on April 11, 2002, believed to be an act of terrorism, will only reinforce Ben Ali’s call for the international community to act together to combat terrorism.63

Interestingly, there was little reaction from the French government to the proposed change to the three-term limit for the Tunisian presidency in the Tunisian constitution put forward by the Ben Ali government. Under the proposed amendment, the age limit for the Tunisian president will be pushed back to 75 from 70 and the three-term limit will be deleted. The proposed constitutional reforms, which are supposed to be validated by a referendum in May, will allow Ben Ali to run again in the 2004 presidential elections. While the French government may not like the government control of the press, the lack of democratic freedoms and the problems of human rights in Tunisia, its priorities are now elsewhere.


The past decade has witnessed strong French support for its relationship with Tunisia. The French government’s desire to maintain its “special relationship” with Tunisia along with Tunisia’s indisputable economic success, its status as a stable country in an unstable region and, most recently, its willingness to cooperate in the war on terrorism, have outweighed Ben Ali’s weak record on human rights, freedom of the press and free and open elections. Both France and the EU place greater importance on Tunisia’s economic and social successes and have been willing to accept the argument that incremental progress is an acceptable path towards democratization. Moreover, Chirac has argued that simple condemnation of regimes with poor human-rights records is counterproductive and that dialogue, cooperation and technical assistance are also necessary to make progress.64 So, while the issues of human rights and democratization have not been irrelevant to France’s foreign-policy agenda towards Tunisia, their influence has been limited. The French government has responded on occasion to the numerous denunciations of Ben Ali by the French media and human-rights groups with cautious criticisms, fewer high-level official visits and quiet diplomacy. Even these discreet actions by the French government were quietly shelved when the specter of instability and Islamic militancy appeared. In the French view, the Ben Ali regime has its faults, but the alternative could be worse.

While the European Parliament may well continue to be critical of Ben Ali’s record on human rights, the EU Council and Commission are unlikely to curtail their economic support for Tunisia over this issue. Their concerns are focused on terrorism, political stability and the need for economic growth. The latter is the major challenge for French and EU policy towards Tunisia and the Mediterranean in the next 5-10 years. While Tunisia continues to experience economic growth, most of the other countries in the region have suffered from poor economic performance and extremely high unemployment rates, particularly among the youth. While the EU, rhetorically, argues that economic growth and development provide the means to combat political instability, its actions have been mediocre at best. The Euro-Med partnership would benefit enormously from the elimination of bureaucratic red tape, an increase in funds and the encouragement of greater levels of European private direct foreign investment in the region. In addition, the potential negative outcomes of association agreements signed with numerous Mediterranean countries, including Tunisia, are disturbing. For example, it is widely predicted that as Tunisia progressively reduces its tariffs to zero in 2010, at least 30 percent of its businesses will not be able to compete and will go under. If the EU does not provide the necessary financial assistance for the Maghreb countries to surmount the huge transitional costs required to implement the free-trade area, the consequences could be dire. The question remains whether France and the other EU countries (Italy and Spain) most directly involved have the will and the ability to persuade their own domestic lobby groups and Germany and other members of the EU more concerned with Eastern Europe that assistance now is in everyone’s best interest.

1Le Monde, January 7, 1999.

2 See for example: Thierry Fabre, “La politique arabe de la France, la fin d’un mythe?” Esprit, June 1991, pp. 137-156; Oliver Roy, “La France, orpheline de sa politique arabe, Esprit, June 1991, pp. 157-162; and Damien Beauchamp, “La fin d’une illusion: la politique arabe de la France,” Commentaire, No. 58, Summer 1992, pp. 367-371.

Le Monde, March 12, 1991.

4 Ibid., June 1, 1995.

5 Richard I. Lawless. “Tunisia-History” The Middle East and North Africa (Europa Publications: Taylor and Francis, 2001), p. 1118. See also Le Monde, September 7, 1995.

6L’Humanité, October 6, 1995.

Les Echos, October 9, 1995.

8Libération, October 6, 1995.

9Le Monde, July 19, 1995.

10 The twelve countries are Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus, Malta and Mauritania.

11 Bulletin EC 6-1992, point I.31.

12Agence France Press, November 22, 1995.

13 Middle East International, March 29, 1996, p. 15 and Lawless, p. 1122.

14 Bruno Callies de Salies. “Les deux visages de la dictature en Tunisie” Le Monde diplomatique, October 1999, p. 13.

15 Ibid.

16 Hosni was convicted in January 1996 for having “forged a land contract,” although human-rights groups contended that the evidence against him was flimsy at best. Amnesty International argued that he had been convicted on trumped-up charges because of his human-rights activities. The government refused to investigate Hosni’s charges that he had been tortured while detained.

17 Lawless, p. 1125.

18 Ibid.

19Le Monde, March 18, 1997 and October 21, 1997; Libération, October 20, 1997.

20 Richard H. Curtiss, “Tunisia: A Country that Works,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1996.

21 Agence France Press, May 25, 1996.

22Le Monde, November 12, 1998.

23 Ibid., March 18, 1997.

24Agence France Press, August 5, 1997.

25Le Monde, October 21, 1997.

26 Ibid.

27Le Monde, October 23, 1997.

28Jeune Afrique, October 29-November 4, 1997, p. 27.

29 Ibid.

30La Croix, October 23, 1997.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., and Le Monde, October 23, 1997.

33 Georgie Anne Geyer, “Tunisia: A Country that Works.” The Washington Quarterly, Autumn, 1998, p. 105.

34 In 1996, 25 percent of Tunisia’s exports went to France (1,366 millions de dinar) and Tunisia’s imports (1,830 millions de dinar) from France equaled 24 percent of total imports. Private French investment equaled 503 millions de dinars or 11 percent of the total. (Germany was second with 250 millions dinars.) In tourism, 808,000 Germans and 542,000 French visited Tunisia. Jeune Afrique, October 15-28, 1997, p. 34.

35 Jeune Afrique, October 15-18, 1997, p. 35.

36Le Monde, October 18, 1997 and October 21, 1997.

37Le Monde, October 21, 1997.

38 Nicolas Beau and Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, Notre Ami Ben Ali (Paris: La Decouverte, 1999), p. 15.

39Le Monde, February 8, 2000.

40Jeune Afrique, February 15-21, 2001, p. 14.

41Le Monde, February 9, 2001.

42 Lawless, p. 1119.

43Middle East International, May 5, 2000, p. 8.

44 Ibid., May 19, 2000, p. 16.

45Le Monde, May 6, 2000.

46 Ibid., April 10, 2001.

47Middle East International, January 12, 2001, p. 15.

48Agence France Press, June 26, 2001.

49 Ibid., February 9, 2001.

50 Ibid., June 1, 2001.

51Le Monde, March 22, 2001.

52La Tribune, November 16, 2000.

53 Le Figaro, April 23, 2002.

54International Herald Tribune, March 20, 2000.

55Europolitique, June 23, 2001.

56Agence France Press, October 1, 2001.

57Le Monde, November 10, 2001.

58 At the Euro-Mediterranean Forum in October, Bouteflika commented that for the past decade the Algerian government had fought against terrorists. “We fought alone, finding neither brothers nor friends.” Agence France Press, October 23, 2001.

59La Presse de Tunisie, December 6, 2001.

60 Ibid., October 31, 2001.

61Le Renouveau (Tunisia), December 2, 2001.

62 Agence France Press, December 20, 2001.

63 The Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites claimed responsibility for the attack. Le Figaro, April 24, 2002.

64Agence France Press, December 7, 1998.

DCT Research Team

DCT Research Team

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