Monday. 04.03.2024

The news that a young Tunisian was the suspected perpetrator of a deadly attack in France last month sent shockwaves through Tunisia, a former French colony.

According to French and Italian officials, the main suspect had reached Italy by sea before making his way to France shortly before the attack in a church in the city of Nice.

The 29 October terrorist attack came amid outrage in much of the Muslim world over cartoons published by a satirical French magazine depicting the prophet Mohammed and deemed blasphemous by Muslims.

At stake are Tunisia’s historic and economic links with France, home to around 600,000 Tunisian migrants. And some 1,400 French companies are operating in Tunisia, according to official figures.

Meanwhile 1 million Moroccan migrants live in France.

Fears are growing in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco that France may repatriate migrants from the Maghreb under counter-terrorism efforts.

However, for Khaled Obeid, a historian at Tunisia’s public Manouba University, Tunisian-French ties are unlikely to suffer.

“Tunisia does not condone Tunisians committing crimes in France or vice versa,” he says.

“The issue is not related to the future of relations between the two countries. The question is: Will Tunisia accept France deporting or not? It seems that the Tunisian side does not object to taking back Tunisian deportees. But will all of them really be militants?” he said.

Security cooperation talks

Last week, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin travelled to Tunisia and Algeria for talks on security cooperation and combating terror, according to Tunisian media.

Before departing, Darmanin said in Rome that the fight was against Islamist ideology, and "not in any way against a religion, Islam, which we clearly respect."

He underlined that being European and supporting European values and being Muslim were in no way incompatible.

However, human rights advocates in Tunisia voiced concerns that French authorities would use the attack as a pretext for mass deportations, under pressure from anti-migrant groups.

“Such painful incidents are often exploited by far-right groups in France and other European countries for political gain,” said Ramadan Ben Omar, a member of the non-government Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

“We have seen campaigns [in Europe] demanding governments adopt tougher anti-migrant policies,” he added.

The forum was among 24 Tunisian non-governmental organizations to urge France to follow international pacts protecting migrants and warn against what they called “collective punishment” of Tunisian migrants.

After a series of Islamist attacks in France since 2015 that have left more than 250 dead, French President Emmanuel Macron recently set out an action plan to combat extremism.

But his focus on Islam was seen by some Muslims as heavy-handed, while others took offence at some of his comments on the issue.

Boycott of French goods

In reaction, calls have grown in several Muslim countries, including the Maghreb states, for a boycott of French goods.

In mostly Muslim Algeria, dozens took to the streets in the capital in protest, defying a government ban on demonstrations due to the pandemic.

The Movement for the Society of Peace, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, demanded the government take a “political and economic stance in support of Islam.”

While Algeria has not officially commented on the cartoon row, the country's Supreme Islamic Council, a state body, denounced what it called the “fierce campaign against the prophet."

And the Islamist Movement of National Construction Party voiced concerns that Islamophobia could unleash hostility towards Algerian migrants, one of the largest immigrant communities in France.

Last week, Macron attempted to calm tensions, saying he understood the feelings of Muslims who were upset by the cartoons.

"I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights," Macron told broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

He criticized what he called "distortions" saying many people had been led to think that the caricatures were created by the French state, rather the work of independent newspapers.

He also said he was trying to combat the "radical Islam" as a threat to all people, especially Muslims.

Meanwhile Abdelfettah Benamchi, who heads the Moroccan Centre for Parallel Diplomacy and Dialogue of Civilizations, an independent think tank, was optimistic about the country's relations with France.

“Current tensions will inevitably end because all sides tend to give precedence to common interests and avoid escalation,” he says.

Tensions with France trigger worries in Maghreb countries