French ex-colonies owed an apology
Last week’s visit to France by Tunisian President Kais Saied 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.
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.
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. But 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. On June 7, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, was pulled down by protesters in the English city of Bristol. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of the Palestine Chronicle. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
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