The humiliating weight of Frenchness in Tunisia

Tunisia had sought to Arabize itself since independence and failed. It's relation to France still very much defines the country's character.

Street facing the French Institute (Institut français) in Tunis’s city-center. Credit Shreya Parikh © 2020.

François, a Frenchman in his late 20s, tells me that his Tunisian neighbor—an old man living with his family in the residential heart of Tunis’ medina—had recently thrown a large piece of brick at them from his terrace at three in the morning. His French “expat” friends, migrants in Tunisia like myself and François, laugh at this description of madness that had already been ascribed to this Tunisian neighbor. Some of them were present during the recounted event. Someone adds that François had thrown a house party, put on loud music, and the party had run late into the night during a weekday.

I try to imagine the look in the eyes of the old Tunisian man—tired from the lack of sleep, worried about his children or grandchildren who probably have to go to work or school the next morning. I ask François if maybe he should have kept the music low, and he tells me, “But the old man could have come and asked us to shut down the music!”

In my head, I know immediately that the old man could have never knocked on François’ door to ask the music to be turned off. But François doesn’t know this, because he doesn’t know what it means to have been colonized.

I wonder if François knows that he knows what it means to have been a colonizer; that he inherited this knowledge, like his skin color and his French passport? It makes François complain that “Tunisians don’t speak well in French,” blaming them for his inability to communicate with them. It makes François sabotage the beautiful name of the Tunisian woman who comes to clean his home twice a week, all the while giggling and with no apology in sight! Maybe François reasons that he doesn’t need to apologize because his day job involves “empowering Tunisians” with French government-sponsored grants to set up small enterprises. Instead, Tunisians should be thankful for François’ presence—so his light-hearted giggling tells us!

I imagine the heavy weight of François’ light-heartedness falling onto the Tunisian neighbor. In what words would this old man have spoken to François, knowing that his accented French would be ridiculed and his desire for residential calm laughed upon because François probably pays ten times the old man’s rent for the large serviced house he rents in the same medina?

The French colonization of Tunisia began with the 1881 Treaty of Bardo, which authorized French military occupation, restricted beylical rule, and reorganized the ministries of justice and finance to promote French settlers’ interests. A French Resident General took authority in diplomacy, defense, and taxation, and “buttressed an illiberal system of rule by law, not rule of law,” as Laryssa Chomiak writes. This rule by law system was inherited by post-independence Tunisia, first under the regime of President Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and later under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011). The revolution of 2011 was a result of the inequalities that such a persisting illiberal system had made stark, including regional disparities in economic and social opportunities and outcomes, poverty, and humiliation. After more than a decade, the system remains, policed not only by the Ministry of Interior, but also by the French who should have theoretically left in 1956.

Every time I write “colonize” in the past tense, I wonder how past this past is. I watch hundreds of Tunisians walk past the Embassy of France on a square ironically named Place de la Independence in the heart of Tunis; I watch them shrink under the gaze of the thickening security that blocks all the roads that border the building. The streets where Tunisians called out for freedom and dignity during the revolutionary protests of 2011 are also the streets where Tunisians have stood in humiliatingly long queues, day after day, to be given a chance to get a French visa. I have known families who have paid their month’s income for yet another visa application that will be rejected by a François. I see them stoop under the suffocating weight of Frenchness as they bend to clean restaurant tables after serving yet another French tourist who comes to their country visa-free.

Imen, 24 years old, tells me that she never learnt to speak French. But the public schools she grew up attending in a working-class neighborhood of Tunis impose French language onto every student. So Imen reframes her sentence again, and tells me that she cannot speak French. She tells me about the teachers who taught her French and who would judgingly correct her every word; she describes upper middle-class Tunisian men in fancy suits who interview her for jobs she applies for, and who continuously reject her because she cannot speak French. She cannot speak French, everyone tells her, because the words that come out of her mouth are thick in rolled R-s. She cannot speak the “correct” French like François and the Tunisian men in fancy suits.

The education system in Tunisia had sought to Arabize itself since independence and failed, maintaining the colonial construction of knowledge of French language as symbolizing upper social status. Yet, the increase in the number of private French schools has not resulted in a generation of “employable candidates,” as Youssef, a Franco-Tunisian head of an architectural firm noted. Youssef complained that his Tunisian interns do not know how to take phone calls with his European clients, and iterated François’ remark that Tunisians did not speak proper French. A plain acquisition of French language was not enough; rather, one’s social worth was decided by one’s ability to acquire a form of Frenchness, the rules of which one had long internalized but the path to its acquisition never clearly defined. But therein lies the power of Frenchness in Tunisia—the deliberate vagueness to its acquisition hides the fact that it can never be acquired by any Tunisian.

I think of Tunisian women and men like Youssef, and wonder if they indeed believe that they can become François by not rolling their R-s? Maybe it is the same belief that made me violently erase the Indian accent from the English I speak. Do I really believe that my softened T-s would take away the weight of coloniality? Or maybe these T-s are themselves the weight of coloniality—a humiliating performance to please the François of the world, and an excuse to humiliate those like us who speak with hard T-s in their English or rolled R-s in their French. Maybe, in the words of those whom we ourselves humiliate, we see our own failed attempts at becoming François, and to hide our own humiliation, we humiliate them.

But maybe in the rolled-Rs lies the possibility of a resistance. Mariem, a Franco-Algerian doctoral student, tells me of her immigrant Algerian father’s French—a perfectly Parisian French except for the rolled-Rs that he continues to nourish like his favorite plant. A generation of Algerian men who migrated to France in the 1970s and 1980s decided to keep their rolled-Rs as they integrated into French society, he recently told her. What for Mariem was her childhood site of shame is now a story of familial strength—a humiliation turned to pride.

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