The Consul General at Tunis ( Jernegan ) to the Department of State

No. 131

Subject: Resident General’s Views on Progress of Reform Program

The French authorities in Tunisia have decided to proceed with political reforms in the Regency much more slowly than they at first gave the public, and myself, to understand. They are presently more interested in maintaining a firm control over all branches of the administration than in arriving at a real accord with the nationalists. This is the net impression I obtained from a lengthy conversation with Resident General Perillier on October 20.

Although M. Perillier said that a “text” to modify the control powers of the Secretary General of the Tunisian Government was being prepared, it was implied in his remarks that the changes were unlikely to be drastic and that immediate action of any kind in this matter was not to be expected. He also said that he had proposed to Prime Minister Chenik the creation of two small commissions to study changes in municipal governments and the opening of greater opportunities for Tunisians to be employed in the national government, but here too it appeared that only tentative, preliminary steps were currently envisaged.

The Resident General confirmed his recent public statements (see reference despatch1) that he considered a pause necessary in the political reform program. He frankly admitted that this would be displeasing to the nationalists and might even cause the resignation of the present cabinet and a breakdown of the precarious collaboration between the French and the Néo-Destour. This prospect did not seem to trouble him greatly, however. If the nationalists were not willing to work with him on his own terms, he said, he could always find plenty of volunteers to fill the cabinet jobs and he would go ahead with his program, in his own good time, just the same.

M. Perillier recognized that a definite break between the Néo-Destour and the French might produce considerable unrest and even [Page 1798] possibly disturbances, but lie asserted that this could be easily controlled, whether it took the form of violence or peaceful resistance through something like a general strike. He evidently has a low opinion of the courage of the Tunisians and great confidence in the effectiveness of a show of French force.

When I interjected that I was worried about the possibility of Arab League intervention in the UN in support of the nationalists, the Resident General dismissed this rather cavalierly as being no great problem even if such action should materialize. What, he asked, could the Arabs accomplish in the UN except to bring about a big debate? (Not wishing to press the question, I refrained from pointing out that such a debate could be very embarrassing, if not even more serious, to both France and the United States.) He admitted, however, that the existence of the UN forum and the development of world opinion made it desirable for France to avoid the use of open force in Tunisia if possible.

M. Perillier also dismissed as unimportant the possibility (mentioned in at least one local newspaper) that the nationalist leaders might carry their complaints direct to the French Government in Paris. If they did this, he said, they might see President Auriol, who would receive them politely and ask them to see Prime Minister Pleven.2 M. Pleven would receive them politely and suggest that they discuss matters with M. Schuman. M. Schuman would point out that the proper person to see was M. Perillier, who had his entire confidence, but that they might talk with M. Parodi3 of the Foreign Office if they wished. M. Parodi would refer them in turn to M. Binoche,4 in charge of Africa-Levant affairs, who would pass them on to M. Latour du Pin, and Latour du Pin would suggest that they go back to Tunis and talk to the Resident General.

Our conversation, which took place at his request, consisted mostly of a monologue by M. Perillier in which he seemed to be trying to justify to me his decision to slow down the process of political change and to convince me that it was only a slowing-down, not an abandonment of the policy of reform. Unfortunately, he was not crystal-clear in his exposition of the reasons for this decision, but I believe I am correct in setting them down as follows:

The French inhabitants of Tunisia had been greatly disturbed by the first small reforms (new cabinet with an additional Tunisian member, suppression of French advisers to Tunisian ministers) and had had to be reassured by repeated emphatic statements about continued French control. Further immediate reform steps would set them off again.
The nationalists in the cabinet had tried to “cheat”, to go beyond the terms of the agreement under which the implementation of the reform program had been undertaken. This sort of tactics only caused M. Perillier to hold back still more.
The cabinet had not demonstrated its ability to handle its present administrative responsibilities; the work of the government was not being carried forward even as efficiently as under the formed Kaak cabinet. It would be illogical to give the Tunisians greater powers and responsibilities until they had proven they could measure up to their present duties.
Prime Minister Chenik had proven a disappointment. He was selected for the post because he had made a good showing in office under Moncef Bey,5 but he now seemed to have lost the quality of leadership. In consequence it was Salah Ben Youssef, the Néo-Destour representative, who dominated the government. Instead of being just one-seventh of the cabinet, Ben Youssef had become “five-sevenths”, which was not at all what M. Perillier had planned.

Apart from advancing these specific reasons, M. Perillier devoted a great deal of time to general justification of his go-slow policy. Reiterating previous statements about the political immaturity of the Tunisians, he dwelt on their asserted tendency to corruption in office. The nationalist leaders, he said, were really interested only in getting power and wealth for themselves. They had no interest in the true welfare of the people as a whole or in developing democratic institutions. As evidence of this point he quoted the Prime Minister as having said that he was not interested in preparing for more representative municipal governments, whereas the Resident General considered that this was a fundamental step in the education of the Tunisian people toward self-government.

M. Perillier alluded repeatedly to Egypt, Syria and even Korea as examples of the bad results of giving backward peoples independence before they were ready for it. In Egypt, he said, corruption and inefficiency were rampant and the people as a whole were much worse off than they had been under British rule or than the Tunisian people were at present under French rule. Egyptians who visited Tunisia, he said, frankly admitted this.

He emphasized his belief that the majority of the Tunisian people were not truly nationalists at heart but merely opportunists who followed whatever group seemed the strongest. They paid lip service to Bourguiba and the Néo-Destour because that party might one day be in power, but if the Destourians should get “a sharp knock on the head”, there would be a general rush to the other side of the fence.

Aside from mentioning the possibility of Arab League action, my part in the conversation was limited to informing the Resident General that his program of reforms had been discussed with great interest [Page 1800] at the Tangier Conference.6 The delegates, I said, had regarded this program as the most promising sign on the North African horizon and had expressed the hope that his “experiment” would succeed, since its success might have a good influence not only in Tunisia but also in other parts of the area. M. Perillier picked up my word “experiment” and proceeded to stress that his program was just that, making plain that he considered its success still very doubtful.

During the course of the talk, he made some vague allusions to American and British contacts with the Arabs (presumably North African as well as Near Eastern Arabs), apparently with the idea of cautioning me not to be taken in by their assurances of Arab friendship for America.

My conclusion from all of this is that the prospect for an amicable and enduring modus vivendi between the French and Arabs in Tunisia is not so bright as it appeared a few weeks ago. The Resident General’s attitude does not seem fundamentally changed, but he certainly sounds more rigid than in his earlier conversations with me, and even his earlier attitude was considered too rigid by the nationalists. No matter how valid his reasons for the “pause” may be, French holding-back on reform moves already promised will certainly strike the nationalists as proof of bad faith.

If the Néo-Destour pulls out of the cabinet and returns to all-out demands for independence, I fear that even actual implementation of the promised reforms by the French might not be sufficient to prevent a crisis of some sort. Furthermore, to judge by the Resident General’s own remarks, nationalist agitation only causes him to be that much more resistant to demands for changes. He does not seem to realize that strict, logical paternalism, regardless of how good its motives, has gone out of fashion in the world. Still worse, he gives no evidence of appreciating the dangers for France involved in an eventual full-fledged airing of nationalist claims before the UN.

However, I am not yet disposed to write off the reform program and Arab-French collaboration as a lost cause. Tunisian reaction to the Resident General’s go-slow policy has not been so violent as I would have anticipated, and so long as the present cabinet stays in office the way is open for an understanding. Perillier still insists that reforms will come in due course. His record in handling the nationalists to date has been pretty good. Perhaps he can restrain their impatience long enough to prevent a rupture.

John D. Jernegan
  1. No. 129, October 17, from Tunis; not printed.
  2. French Prime Minister, July 1950–March 1951.
  3. Alexandre Parodi, Secretary-General of the French Foreign Ministry.
  4. Jean Binoche, in charge of African-Levant affairs in the French Foreign Ministry from July 1950.
  5. A former Tunisian Prime Minister.
  6. The reference here is to the North African Diplomatic and Consular Conference, held at Tangier, October 2–7, 1950. For the summary report on the Conference, including the recommended policy toward Tunisia, see McGhee’s memorandum of November 6 to the Secretary of State, p. 1573.