Jean Castex, accompanied by half a dozen ministers, goes Wednesday evening June 2 and Thursday June 3 to visit Tunisia, in order to strengthen ties with a country crossed by crises – political, social, economic and migratory – and further weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two months after the controversial postponement of a government seminar in Algeria, the French Prime Minister is expected, for his first major international outing, within the framework of the third Franco-Tunisian High Cooperation Council (HCC), which follows those of 2017 and 2019.
Since the last edition, the executive has changed in Tunisia, with the election to the presidency of Kaïs Saïed – an independent academic – in October 2019, then the appointment of Hichem Mechichi as head of government in July 2020. In the background , major political turmoil brought the top of the state against the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, the main force of a fragmented Parliament.
Fears of oxygen shortage
This visit, which therefore takes place in a tense and uncertain political context, must be structured around “Four main priorities”, according to Matignon.
First “The health crisis”, Obviously, while a rebound in the epidemic at the onset of spring prompted local fears of an oxygen shortage. Material assistance should be provided, bearing in mind that France has pledged to deliver autonomous oxygen production units to three Tunisian hospitals in the near future.
Questions from “Economic partnership” and of “Support” will be the most visible heart of the exchanges, with the signing of agreements, a detour through the Tunis rapid rail network site and a meeting on the topic of digital co-organized by Tunisian (Utica) and French (Medef) employers .
But it will be difficult not to mention the urgency of the situation in Tunisia, whose economy is bloodless: heavily in debt, suffering from a breathless development model based on cheap labor, it expects from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) a new loan over three years in return for promises of reforms.
If France pledged last year to lend 350 million euros to support the country’s transformation until 2022 (100 million have so far been paid), it is “Neither enough, nor the right vector”, according to AFP the essayist Hakim El Karoui, author in May of a note for the Montaigne Institute on the stability of the Maghreb.
“We need donations”, around “Of 1 or 2 billion euros”, supported by a European initiative as part of the recovery plan, in order to “Pass the Covid peak”, insists Mr. El Karoui, stressing that the announced weakness of the tourist season, one of the pillars of the Tunisian economy (around 14% of GDP), clouded the outlook. “We will find ourselves in the fall with people who have not replenished their income. We must not say that we did not see the coming social and political crisis “, he predicts.
Gérald Darmanin is also on the trip
These internal shocks also have direct consequences for the European Union (EU), which is currently in discussions with Tunisia for an agreement on economic aid in exchange for efforts to prevent the departure of migrants. At present, 15% of migrants arriving by sea in Europe are of Tunisian nationality, constituting the largest contingent.
“Questions of the fight against terrorism” will also invite themselves in the exchanges, assures Matignon. The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, present in the delegation, had already come to discuss the subject in November, in the wake of the attack which killed three people in the basilica of Nice, committed by a 21-year-old Tunisian freshly landed in Europe.
Paris wants to expel a handful of individuals to Tunisia, out of a few dozen people registered for radicalization, but negotiations are slipping on what is akin to a “Shitty stick”, according to Mr. El Karoui. “Tunisians say to France: they have become radicalized in your country”, he sums up. Like the author of the attack in the Rambouillet police station in April, arrived in France in 2009.
Finally, the visit should be used to prepare the next Francophonie Summit, to be held in Tunisia in November 2021, and to seal new agreements. “Between French and Tunisian training establishments”.