At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the European powers acknowledged France’s special interest in Tunisia because of its political assimilation of neighboring Algeria. Three years later, raids by Tunisians into Algerian territory provided the excuse to dispatch French soldiers across the frontier. Encountering only sporadic resistance, they marched on to Tunis. With this formidable force at the doorstep of his capital, Muhammad al-Sadiq Bey had little choice but to accede to French demands, which were embodied in the Treaty of the Bardo. Although the bey (governor) kept his throne, he was compelled to accept a French resident minister to oversee Tunisian contacts with foreign powers. In addition, the commander of the French troops, which remained in Tunisia, took charge of the Tunisian armed forces.
Significant resistance to the French occupation developed only among the groups of central and southern Tunisia. In the coastal cities, whose prosperity was linked to the maintenance of order, even foreign rule was preferable to tribal insurrection. French and Tunisian troops crushed the rural resistance in short order, but as many as 120,000 rebels (10 per cent of the total population) escaped the clutches of the government by fleeing to Tripolitania. Since neither the bey nor the French wanted large numbers of disgruntled Tunisians beyond their reach in an adjacent territory, the government issued a general pardon that induced most of the exiles to return within a few years.
Ali Bey, who followed Muhammad al-Sadiq to the throne in 1882, signed the La Marsa Convention formally establishing a French protectorate over Tunisia in 1883. Obliged by its terms to implement administrative, judicial, and financial reforms dictated by France, the bey now lost control over many domestic matters, as well as over foreign affairs. Responsibility for applying these reforms fell to Paul Cambon, the French resident general after 1882. Cambon carefully maintained the appearance of Tunisian sovereignty while reshaping the administrative structure in order to give France complete control of the country and render the beylical government a hollow shell devoid of real power.
French officials employed various tactics to assure their dominance of the beylical government. They urged the bey to place in key posts members of the precolonial ruling elite whose personal loyalty would cause them to follow his lead in offering no opposition to French plans, while those Tunisians who had supported the 1881 rebellion or had otherwise opposed the extension of French influence were dismissed from government posts. A Frenchmen became the secretary general to the Tunisian government, an office created in 1883 to advise the prime minister and oversee and coordinate the work of the bureaucracy. French experts responsible to the secretary general and the resident general managed and staffed the government’s technical services, which dealt with finances, public works, education, and agriculture. The resident general also had the power to promulgate executive decrees.
France also left the framework of local government in place, while devising similar mechanisms of control. Before the protectorate, qaids, or provincial governors, maintained order and collected taxes in jurisdictions defined either by tribal membership or geography. The central government appointed them and, on their recommendation, the shaykhs who constituted the next level of leadership. Because most of these men grasped the futility of resisting the French, as well as the possibility of benefiting from collaboration with them, most were able to retain their posts. To keep a close watch on developments outside the capital, however, the resident general relied on contrdleurs civils, French officials who closely supervised the qaids and shaykhs throughout the country, except in the extreme south. There, military officers assigned to a service des renseignements (intelligence service) performed the same task. Successive residents general, fearful of the soldiers’ tendency toward direct rule, which belied the myth of continued Tunisian governance, strove to bring the service des renseigne-ments under their control, finally succeeding late in the century.
Shoring up the debt-ridden Tunisian treasury headed Cambon’s list of immediate priorities. In 1884,
France guaranteed the Tunisian debt and abolished the International Debt Commission, a multinational agency that had overseen the country’s finances since 1869. Responding to French pressures to create a more equitable tax system that would stimulate a revival in productivity and commerce and would generate additional revenues for the state, the beylical government lowered taxes, including a particularly hated personal assessment, the majba.
In 1883, the introduction of French courts and French law, which subsequently applied to all foreigners, induced the European powers to abandon the consular courts that had been designed to shelter their nationals from the Tunisian judiciary. The protectorate authorities made no attempt to alter the system of Muslim religious courts in which judges, or qadis, tried cases in accordance with Islamic law. Under the watchful eye of the French, a beylical court handling Tunisian criminal cases operated in the capital and similar courts functioned in the provinces after 1896.
Persuaded that modern education would foster harmonious Franco-Tunisian relations by bridging the gap between Arab and European cultures, as well as creating a cadre of Tunisians with skills needed in the growing government bureaucracy, the protectorate authorities created a Directorate of Public Education, headed by a Frenchman, to oversee all Tunisian schools, including religious ones. The directorate set up a unitary Franco-Arab school system for French and Tunisian pupils in which French was the medium of instruction, the curriculum replicated that of schools in metropolitan France, and French-speaking students studied Arabic as a second language. In urban areas, even in such schools, racial mixing rarely occurred, because private religious schools, both Christian and Muslim, continued to flourish. Although they met with greater success in rural areas, the Franco-Arab schools never enrolled more than a fifth of Tunisia’s eligible students. At the summit of the modern education system was Sadiqi College. Highly competitive examinations regulated admission, but Sadiqi graduates were almost assured of a government position by virtue of their advanced training in modern subjects and their mastery of the increasingly important French language.
Kenneth J. Perkins See also: Tunisia: Nationalism, Growth of, 1881-1938.
Ganiage, Jean. Les origines du protectorat frangais en Tunisie (1861-1881). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959. Green, Arnold. “The Tunisian Ulama and the Establishment of the French Protectorate, 1881-1882.” Revue d’Histoire Maghrebine. 1, no. 1 (1974): 14-25.
Macken, Richard. “Louis Machuel and Educational Reform in Tunisia during the Early Years of the French Protectorate,” Revue d’Histoire Maghrebine, no.3 (1975): 45-55. Mahjoubi, Ali. L’etablissement du protectorat frangais en Tunisie. Tunis: Universite de Tunis, 1977.