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History, The French Protectorate

Tunisian people, Bourguiba, Vichy government, French Union, deep resentment

French rule in Tunisia brought many important social and political changes. After 1884 a French resident general governed the country, although the bey was the nominal ruler. A sizable group of French settlers colonized the northern coastal region, filled administrative posts, and operated business enterprises. These settlers exerted a strong Westernizing influence.

During the early 1900s the widespread diffusion in Tunisia of European democratic ideals produced vigorous independence movements known collectively as the Young Tunisians. For several decades French authorities successfully suppressed the fledgling patriotic movements. In 1920, however, various nationalist groups united and formed the Destour (Constitutional) Party, which advocated extensive democratic reforms. The Destour movement was disbanded in 1925, but it was revived during the economic depression of the 1930s. In 1934 the so-called Neo-Destour, or New Constitutional, Party was organized by the Tunisian patriot and statesman Habib Bourguiba. In contrast to the more moderate Destour Party, which looked for support only in Tunisia, the Neo-Destour Party sought and received aid from extreme leftist or nationalist groups in France, Morocco, and Algeria. The Destour and Neo-Destour parties were forced by the government to dissolve in 1938.

The French authorities in Tunisia cooperated fully with the Vichy government, which ruled in France after that country capitulated to Germany on June 22, 1940, during World War II. Tunisia was important in military operations. In November 1942, amphibious Allied forces landed in Algeria and Morocco. Germany poured troops and tanks into the northern regions of nearby Tunisia to resist the Allied advance. After several months of fighting the Allied forces pinned the German forces against the sea on the Cape Bon Peninsula, and on May 12, 1943, the Germans capitulated. The surrender marked the final defeat of the Axis powers in northern Africa. On May 15 the Allies transferred control of Tunisia to the Free French. The French authorities immediately arrested hundreds of alleged Fascist sympathizers and deposed the reigning bey as a collaborator. These actions provoked deep resentment among the Tunisian people and prepared the way for the postwar renewal of nationalist agitation.

In 1945 France forced Bourguiba to seek refuge in Cairo. In the following year France granted Tunisia status as a semiautonomous associated state of the French Union. Further steps toward autonomy came in August 1947, when the French resident general formed a ministry composed chiefly of Tunisians; the French, however, retained the preponderance of political power. In September 1949, Bourguiba returned from exile and resumed his campaign for Tunisian independence. France, responding to the ensuing upsurge of nationalist sentiment, in 1951 appointed more Tunisians to ministerial posts and in the civil service. The following year the native Tunisian ministers attempted to air their grievances against the French before the United Nations Security Council, but they were prevented from doing so by a ruling that the dispute involved a domestic rather than an international question and hence did not fall under UN jurisdiction. Meanwhile, riots and political demonstrations occurred continually, especially in the northern region, rendering the French position in Tunisia increasingly untenable. The disorders continued unabated through the first half of 1954, during which time the French made, to no avail, repeated offers of limited reforms.



Article key phrases:

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