The Consul General at Tunis (Fuller) to the Secretary of State

No. 285

Sir: I have the honor to transmit herewith as an enclosure a clipping from the August 23, 1947, issue of La Presse.1 The interview which Lawyer Ben Youssef granted to the press was probably the first he has ever held, or at any rate, the first that a leader of a Tunisian Nationalist party has held for ten years. Ben Youssef talked with the Resident General, M. Mons, about two weeks before he called this conference with the press, and asked M. Mons if he had any objection to his doing so. The Resident General undoubtedly had a good many objections, but is reported to have told Ben Youssef that he certainly had the right to call the members of the press together and give them any statement he wanted to give them. The press statement is significant, not so much for what it says (comment on which is given below), but for the significant fact that in Tunisia today freedom of the press does exist, is a reality. This fact should augur well for the sane and healthy political atmosphere in this country, and appears, significantly enough, just a year following the public demonstration in Tunis when an all-Destourian Congress of some 400 members was held (August 23) and issued a manifesto calling for immediate independence. The Department will recall that this meeting was broken up and the Resident General arrested and placed in jail 48 leading Nationalist figures.

It is not without significance to point out that while on the one hand both the Arab and French press now give wide publicity to statements of Destourian leaders like Ben Youssef, Salah Farhat, and Bourguiba, [Page 705] on the other hand there is presently a strained relation between the Residency and the Nationalist-backed labor union. Despite this situation, which has definitely worsened, the fact that both the Nationalists and the union which they sponsor have free access to the press is a sign which should harbour well for the future.

The statements made by Ben Youssef during this interview are the official statements of the Neo-Destour Party, and are not to be confused with the personal observations which Ben Youssef has made upon more than one occasion (reference despatch No. 279 dated September 3, 19472), but are milder in tone. The most important statement undoubtedly is that one in which Ben Youssef says that while there are two means of arriving at independence (revolution with resort to force, and negotiation), “the doctrine of the Neo-Destour disapproves of violence and we believe that we can achieve our independence in cooperation with France who, signatory of the Atlantic Charter, cannot remain unmoved by our argument”.

His next most important statement is revealing: “Independence will be a series of steps which we shall be obliged to take.” In other words, the leader of the Neo-Destour announces publicly that his party realizes that independence cannot come in a day, but can only be achieved gradually over a period of time. However, he goes on to say that the transitional period which constitutes the first step towards independence, and which must create the desired “choc psychologique”, is a government having the confidence of the mass of the Tunisian people; that is, a government formed under Destourian leadership. “This government,” he goes on, “will have as its mission to treat with the representative of the French Republic, the only qualified person, as to the modalities to be determined in arriving at independence.”

He goes on to offer the Destour’s criticism concerning the recent government reforms. He points out how the reorganized Council of Ministers, in the opinion of the Party, constitutes no reform and no special prerogatives for the Tunisian Prime Minister. He furthermore criticizes the Cabinet Council by saying that the coordinating role devolving upon the Prime Minister is strictly limited to matters submitted to the Prime Minister by the various bureau chiefs, who alone have the power to make decisions concerning matters for which they have initial responsibility. It is to be noted that he does not speak of the new post of “Adviser” to each Minister, or of the power which the decree of August 9 grants to this official.

At this press conference occurred the tiff between Lawyer Ben Youssef and a reporter of the Communist Arabic weekly, El Taalia. The Communist reporter had asked Ben Youssef what position political parties would take in the event a Destourian ministry was formed. [Page 706] Ben Youssef replied that there were no parties in Tunisia, there were only Tunisians. Whereupon the reporter asked “And our Party?” Ben Youssef turned to the reporter and abruptly replied, “Your Party is not Tunisian”. This conversation is not reported in the attached clipping, but appeared in Le Petit Matin and Tunis Socialiste. Various other comments made more or less off the record appeared in other newspapers. The chief of these was an observation made by Ben Youssef to the effect that M. Mons from time to time made decisions which “shocked” the Tunisian people. By and large, however, the Destourian leader’s references to the Government are correct and mild in tone.

In separate despatches I am reporting public statements made during this month by Bourguiba, President of the Neo-Destour and now living in exile in Cairo, Salah Farhat, former Minister of Justice under Moncef Bey and Secretary General of the Old Destour Party.

Respectfully yours,

George G. Fuller
  1. Not printed.
  2. Not printed.