Franco-Tunisian ties on the mend as Essebsi visits Paris
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French President François Hollande pledged to build constructive ties with Tunisia on Tuesday as his counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi launched a two-day official visit to Paris, three weeks after a jihadist gunman killed 22 people at Tunis’s Bardo Museum.
Several points of friction between the leaders were evident ahead of the meeting, though a number of observers have told RFI the relations are now moving in a constructive direction.
Hollande began the visit by promising “exemplary cooperation” between the two countries in terms of security, trade and cultural ties in a joint press conference with Essebsi at the Invalides palace in Paris, a sign seen as a gesture of support for the country’s democratic transition.
Essebsi himself told French newspaper Le Monde ahead of the visit that Tunisia was “open to any sort of cooperation in the cultural, scientific, economic, political and even security domains”.
However, several instances ahead of the visit suggested there are some tensions between the leaders, despite the long-held historical and cultural ties between the two countries.
Essebsi’s first official visit to Europe after his election in December 2014 was to Germany, which has been suggested as a show of thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel for supporting his party, Nidaa Tounes.
Essebsi himself recalled in French magazine Paris Match on 27 March that he remembered Hollande was a supporter of his election rival, former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki.
But the tone is different now that the official visit has come.
“Whether the first visit is to France or Germany or another country, our relations and trade relations are mainly with France,” said Mehdi Zaoui, a politician in the Nidaa Tounes party.
“French investments are important here, with ties and a friendship that are very old. Surely there are sometimes ups and downs, but the main thing is that it is a good, strong relationship that Essebsi’s state visit will tighten and consolidate.”
Hollande has visited Tunisia several times throughout his presidency, a sign that French authorities have sought to improve relations following the revolution of 2011.
“Tunisians will always remember the French position during the revolution, when [then-president] Nicolas Sarkozy’s government was supporting the dictator Ben Ali until the last moment,” said Amira Yahyaoui, president of pro-democracy group Al Bawsala.
But Yahyaoui believes that France under Hollande has worked to move beyond this stage.
“I think today we’re seeing a new way forward for the relationship,” she told RFI. “Tunisia has changed its position towards France. We’re the first democracy in the region, the only success story, and we’re not coming to beg for support but to talk as peers.”
These changing relations could play into cooperation in terms of security, one of the major concerns of the visit.
“The primary concern after the bloody attack on the Bardo museum is to ask France and Europe for more help in the security area,” said Steven Eckovich, a professor of politics at the American University in Paris, adding that this is an area where Essebsi could be expected to show his influence.
“The attack [on the Bardo Museum] has given Essebsi the chance to present himself as a real statesman," he said. "There was some difficulty and flailing about with this new government, but now the president has really been given the stature of a statesman who’s there to protect the Tunisians.”
Essebsi indeed began his visit on Tuesday by broaching the issue of Islamist extremism and calling on Tunisians living in France to abide by its laws and to be good Muslims.
Cooperation in investment and security is seen as crucial for economic recovery in Tunisia’s tourism industry following the Bardo attack.
The visit was also to include talks on converting 60 million euros of Tunisia’s debt into investment funds, previously pledged by Hollande in 2013.
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