Among France's Tunisians, elation and worry
France hosts Tunisia's largest expatriate community. Having long lived in political silence, Tunisians here are glued to Arabic TV and debating if greater democracy or regional strife will unfold.
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Of the 1.1 million Tunisians living overseas, 600,000 are in France. They are here for jobs. For them, the Ben Ali regime was a state of nature that wasn’t going to change. It got passive if not always enthusiastic support. No one wanted to be fingered by Tunisian secret police networks. Plus, Ben Ali allowed generous customs. Tunisians brought back cars, suitcases, and crates of European bounty, and enjoyed a largely “hands off” policy by police, says Wissem, a Tunisian living here with his French girlfriend.Skip to next paragraph
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“After 23 years of dictatorship, to suddenly find him gone, your mind goes a little blank," he says. "I don’t know where I ought to be. I just want to be free. The worst is behind.”
The leadership void is stunning to many. “I can’t see who is in charge anymore,” says Adel, who is employed at a Tunisian schwarma (sandwich) joint.
Formal expatriate opposition was small. This week its leader, Moncef Marzouki, returned to run for president. Mostly it has included student activists and “intellectuals without a passport,” as the Tunisian director of French Radio Soliel, Majid Daboussi, puts it. Tunisians needed to keep channels open back home. Some used French tourists to smuggle in opposition literature.
But this was private, not organized. “Except for a small minority, people weren’t political. After Ben Ali took over [23 years ago], people retreated into their own lives, stuck to family and friends,” says Moncef ben Othman, a retired professor. "But I think we are waking up to the larger world. A couple days ago a friend called to ask me, 'Who is Tom Friedman?'"
Opposition grew only recently. Worsening rights abuses by Ben Ali were matched by growing corruption that benefitted his family. On multilingual websites like Tunisnews, expats read about billions socked away by Ben Ali’s family, especially by his new wife. Ben Ali professed the importance of human rights, even as dissent was crushed.
An “Arab radio” of word-of-mouth spread quickly. But European Union authorities did not pay attention (as French president Nicolas Sarkozy this week admitted). Longstanding French policy kept a status quo even as Ben Ali won elections by figures of 90 percent.
“Ben Ali presented himself as the only believable option to chaos and Islam, and the West believed him,” says Cheikh-Rouhou.
Mr. Daboussi, the radio director, warns that, “The EU and the US have the only solution for us. Libya and Qaddafi, Algeria and Egypt, cannot accept a democratic revolution. We now have hostile neighbors. We need help from the West to ensure we don’t sink.”