Tunisia Under French Rule

Tunisia Under French Rule
Tunisia Under French Rule

In 1881 a French expeditionary force attacked Tunisia from Algeria and along the coast. The French forced the local ruling bey, Muhammad al-Sadiq, to sign the Treaty of Bardo that agreed to a French occupation of Tunisia. France was interested in controlling Tunisia in order to guard the eastern border with Algeria (already under French control) and to stop Italian expansion into North Africa.

During the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the British and Germans had agreed to French control over Tunisia. Meanwhile, the British expanded their imperial control over Egypt, in 1881–82.

The resident-minister Paul Cambon legalized the French position with the Convention of Marsa in 1883, whereby Tunisia became a French protectorate. Although the position of the bey was retained, the French appointed a resident-general who became the real ruler of Tunisia. The French legal system was introduced, and the monetary system was based on the French franc. A customs union with France was established, and the French exercised a monopoly over tobacco plantations.

Tunisia was divided into military and political zones with civil controllers. The government allowed immigrants from France and Italy settle in Tunisia, but unlike the situation in Algeria, where French colons often received free land, in Tunisia European settlers had to buy the land.

Italian immigrants outnumbered French settlers until the 1930s. Under the French, areas of cultivation, particularly vineyards for the production of wine, a substance forbidden to the majority Muslim Tunisian population, were expanded.

The French also supported the growth of industry and the mining of phosphates while modernizing and expanding the ports and railway systems. Education was based on the French model, with French as the primary language and Arabic as the second language. Vocational schools were established on the elementary level, but state schools took only a small percentage of children.

The vast differences in education and social opportunities afforded European settlers and the indigenous Tunisian population contributed to urban elite Tunisians trying to reestablish their identity. Some advocated assimilating Western technology and political approaches and cooperating with the French regime. Others favored reviving Islamic traditions and customs.

Shaikh Abd al-’Aziz al-Tha’alibi founded a newspaper in 1895 in which these ideas were discussed. Al-Tha’alibi became one of the foremost leaders of the first generation of Tunisian nationalists. Tunisian nationalism flourished as Tunisians resisted French rule.

A young Tunisian educated elite also emerged from Sadiqiyya College, which had been established during Khayr al-Din’s administration in the mid-19th century; many Sadiqiyya graduates became the leaders of the Tunisia nationalist movement in the 20th century.