Many of us abroad have been looking with lively and sympathetic interest to the unrest in Tunisia. Le Monde diplomatique has a good summary of Tunisia’s Ancien régime: an overbearing president in power for over two decades at the head of a corrupt, clannish elite, unable to meet the basic expectations of an increasingly, urban, educated and informed population, frustrated by petty tyranny and unemployment. To this general trend we can add touching or fascinating individual strokes: Mohamed Bouazizi’s heroic self-immolation (more powerful than any suicide-bomber’s blast), the suddenness of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s flight, the roles of social media and the release of the Wikileaks cables, and the prospect that this “First Arab Revolution” of the Twentieth-First Century might be spreading to Algeria, Libya or even further afield.
Now, as Anne Applebaum rightly points out, we shouldn’t expect this largely leaderless revolution to suddenly bring about an age of harmony and prosperity. In virtually every “color revolution” there has been good, but also disappointment: the rise of an insecure and rash president in Georgia, a disenchantment with politics and the democratic return to power of the former dictator in Ukraine, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon… But all this is also the product of the contestation, the flaws of any really free society – which in fact means not an absolutely free society, but one which is allowed to independently walk its own way on the endless, often tumultuous path towards freedom.
In each case, freedom meant a degree of instability. So I don’t expect perfection. But I also don’t think this to be the time for conservatism and rereading Burke. In no “color revolution” did the country find itself facing catastrophe or a worse dictatorship. Unlike opposition movements in many parts of the Arab world, notably Egypt and neighboring Algeria, in the Tunisian revolt has had no trace of Islamism.
As a Frenchman, however, I am sad to report that my government has not taken any account of this. The French political class has traditionally had incestuous relations with the dictatorships of francophone Africa – north and south of the Sahara and in both former French or Belgian colonies – and Tunisia was no exception. At stake are French prestige and influence, economic interests, and a short-term conception of “stability” against the twin specters of Islamism and immigration. As result of this, notorious African dictators have been a common sight at Bastille Day parades. And, in this specific case, Ben Ali was simply here to stay.
The first casualty in these situations, inevitably, is the truth. And it’s been rather amusing to hear French ministers rationalize, sometimes distorting reality completely like an old issue of Pravda. Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand said on French television that “To say that Tunisia is an unequivocal dictatorship is an exaggeration.” Ben Ali had been president of Tunisia since 1987, regularly “re-elected” with between 89 and 100% of the vote. On January 11, Minister of Agriculture Bruno Lemaire similarly declared that “It isn’t my place to qualify the Tunisian regime. I am French, it isn’t my place to judge a foreign government like that.” The French have had no difficulty judging the developments in Ivory Coast or, in general, claiming to make human rights a major plank of foreign policy (“pays des droits de l’Homme”, and all that). Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie when questioned about the bloody crackdown in Tunisia, suggested, in no less solemn a venue than the National Assembly, that France should assist the Ben Ali regime saying “that the know-how, which is recognized in the entire world, of our security forces makes it possible to resolve security situations of this type.” Government officials and the Elysée website called for apaisement (calming down) of the situation, a line that was parroted almost verbatim by a center-right MP on the talk show Ce soir (ou jamais !), with scarcely a word of encouragement to the protestors or real condemnation of the crackdown.
This matters in terms of policy too. EUobserver has reported that, prior to Ben Ali’s flight, Mediterranean countries including France had blocked a tougher European position against the regime. The French government didn’t let Ben Ali to take refuge in France – as so many other infamous kleptocrats have in the past including Mobutu, Bokassa and “Baby Doc” Duvalier – that would have been too much of a PR disaster. Or perhaps, with the president’s escape, the reality of the winds of change simply could not be denied any longer.
France’s position has been perfectly inconsistent with its policies with regard to Ivory Coast, Belarus or any number of dictatorships. French policy doesn’t even make sense on its own terms: there is as yet no sign of Islamism among the protesters and the creation of a less corrupt, more economically successful country could help reduce immigration (virtually the only thing Sarkozy’s government associates with Africa).
So, all in all, a rather inglorious episode in the history of French diplomacy, somewhat akin to François Mitterrand’s half-hearted, flailing attempts to slow developments in Eastern Europe from 1989 on. The difference, however, is that France had no real power in Eastern Europe, but is probably the single most significant foreign influence over the Maghreb. France has retarded political change in North Africa but it was not something that could be sustained forever. The long “second decolonization” of francophone Africa has been progressing steadily for the past two decades but curiously government officials were unable to see any change until it was far, far too late. This may be something the Israelis and Americans might like to ponder as they manage their own reaction and “business as usual” in the Arab world.