France in Tunisia

by Kristin Deitz

While Leopold of Belgium was busying himself with his "Own Private Congo," France was making major contributions to the imperialistic state of mind in Europe with plans to occupy Tunisia. This plan was met with a fair amount of opposition from the rest of Europe, especially Great Britain and Italy. However, through a series of secret deals, armed interventions, and a knack for taking advantage of extraneous situations, France ended up with a lucrative Tunisian addition to her soon-to-be-giant West African Empire.

Fortunately for France, a series of well-timed circumstances in Tunisia effectively diverted the attention of the powers of Europe and at the same time seemed to justify French intervention in Tunisian affairs. This, for a while, hid France's true imperialistic intentions, The first situation involved Tunisia's monetarily irresponsible Bey, who had succumbed to temptation and borrowed large sums of money abroad at high interest rates, without regard to eventual repayment or to the effects of increased taxes on his already impoverished subjects. The extent of French investments involved led the French Government in 1865) to intervene and begin managing and supervising the Bey's finances. Great Britain and Italy saw this and protested, insisting on a joint financial commission rather than exclusive French control. As a result of this three-way arrangement, each power attempted to gain as much influence as possible relating to the development of resources in Tunisia.

A second situation motivated France to take Tunisia as well. Rebellious Algerian tribesmen had the odd habit of retreating across the border into Tunisia and freely raiding the hinterland. The Tunisian Bey was either unwilling (or unable) to end these annoying disturbances or to even keep his own people from joining in the assaults. As a result, the French listed a long series of grievances and at last initiated armed intervention. Their near occupation was delayed, however, by the France-German War, which the French lost. This defeat strengthened the Italian belief that it was Italy who should control Tunisia, rather than the clearly incapable France.

The fate of the small African state, however, was to be decided in a sneaky deal between Great Britain and France. In 1878, when the Anglo-Turkish Convention awarded to Great Britain exclusive control of the tiny island of Cyprus, Britain informed France that they could have Tunisia if they recognized the British position in Cyprus. This proved satisfactory to France, and pleased Otto von Bismarck as well, for he saw in it an opportunity to gain an ally for the Central Powers by creating in Italy an enemy to France. Disraeli also approved the deal, seeing it as the best way to counteract French indignation at the British occupation of Cyprus.

Italy, ignorant of the new bargain between Britain and France, meanwhile continued to trade happily with her Tunisian friend. The Italian purchase of a railway from British interests in 1880 was inconsiderable, and riled the French up to the point where they almost took Tunisia outright. This became unnecessary, for several timely incidents occurred on the border between Tunisia and Algeria in 1881, and when the Tunisian leader refused to make amends, the French marched in with a huge army from the west and a large fleet of ships from the north. They had apparently forgotten the difficulty and sacrifices involved in the similar take-over of Algeria in 1830. Italy instantly withdrew, and the Tunisian Bey, finding his country friendless during a French attack, quickly surrendered and signed the Treaty of Bardo. This treaty made Tunisia a ward of France and placed it permanently under French protection.

The French occupation of Tunisia was the first definite move in what would become the partitioning of Africa. Despite British protests (which later became pleasant offers of compensation), and Italian indignation (just as Bismarck had predicted), France was able to create the foundation for a large, profitable, empire. They had learned from their big mistakes in Algeria, and had performed the Tunisian operation with such success largely due to the competence of the French Foreign Office. They felt they had indeed performed "a sacred duty, which a superior civilization contracts toward less advanced peoples."