The small centrist Al-Karama bloc proposed the bill and its 19 members wore shirts bearing the slogan, “Murder and torture, the brutality of French colonialism” during the 15 hour parliamentary debate.
Only 77 of the 217 member assembly voted in favour of the legislation that demanded “compensation to the Tunisian state and to all those who suffered the pain of colonization.”
“We are not animated by any bitterness or hatred, but such apologies will heal the wounds of the past,” said Seifeddine Makhlouf, President of the centrist Al-Karama party.
The bill fell well short of the 109 votes required to pass. Its failure has been put down to deep divisions in the parliament, and concerns it could harm the country’s relationship with the former colonial power who remains its number one trading partner.
“We are not going to feed Tunisians with such motions,” Osama Khelifi, from Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunis) argued, alluding to Tunisia’s heavy economic and political reliance on France.
Another factor in the bill’s downfall was Makhlouf’s criticism of Tunisia’s independence president Habib Bourguiba, whom he described as “the servant of France.” Bourguiba was a charismatic ‘father figure’ who led Tunisia to independence and served as the country’s first President from independence in 1957 to 1987, when he was peacefully deposed at age 84.
“We are for the most part the children of Bourguiba, who led the liberation struggle of the country after long years of imprisonment and deportations and built modern Tunisia by generalising education and by emancipating women,” Tahya Tounes MP Mustapha Ben Ahmed said, in response to the criticism.
Global push against racism, glorifying colonialist figures
The bill comes in the wake of a global wave of anti-racism protests that have reignited conversations about France’s role in slavery and colonial past. The Republic, built on the values of egalité (equality),and fraternité(brotherhood), has witnessed large anti-racism protests and is being forced to address the reality of racism in a country that sees itself as “colour-blind.”
“France is not blind to racism. France thinks it’s blind to racism,” University of Tours African diaspora researcher Maboula Soumahoro told France24 in February.
“Because slavery was illegal on the mainland, people in France have the impression that this hyper-racialised history that is characteristic of the modern world only concerns the Americas, when in fact we have our own history,” Soumahoro explained.
The French Republic’s universalist principles, in conjunction with the realities of the country’s colonial past, have created an environment where racism persists, but is downplayed by politicians and the mainstream media — which, in spite of France’s large Maghrebin and African communities, remains dominated by white voices.
“The result of this contradiction is a form of universalism that is itself not universal, tainted by a sense of superiority and a tendency to depreciate other cultures,” according to, Carole Reynaud-Paligot historian and author of the “Racial Republic: Racial paradigm and republican ideology”
“Racism is derived from this context of domination, a context that is still at play today, most notably in France’s relations with the so-called developing world,” Paligot told France24.
“Racism is derived from this context of domination, a context that is still at play today, most notably in France’s relations with the so-called developing world.”
Outside of France, statues of slave traders and colonial figures have been torn down by protestors across the globe. Statues of Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Americas, then enslaved, suppressed and massacred its native peoples, have been beheaded, set alight and destroyed in two US cities. While British demonstrators in Bristol tore down and threw the statue of British slave trader Edward Colston into the city’s harbour on Sunday.