Tunisia’s parliament has rejected a motion calling on France to apologise for crimes committed during and after colonial rule, following 15 hours of debate.
The bill, which demanded “compensation to the Tunisian state and to all those who suffered the pain of colonisation,” was put forward by the centrist Al-Karama coalition, which holds 19 of the 217 seats in parliament.
Legislators from the bloc attended the session, which ran into the night, wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Murder and torture, the brutality of French colonialism”.
Seventy-seven votes were cast on Wednesday in favour of the motion, far short of the 109 votes needed for it to pass – a tall order, given the deep divisions among members of Tunisia’s parliament.
“We are not animated by any bitterness or hatred, but such apologies will heal the wounds of the past,” Seifeddine Makhlouf, president of Al-Karama, said.
He used the example of Germany, which apologised to France after the Nazi occupation, noting that the two countries “are now allies and the leading partners in Europe”.
However, Makhlouf provoked an outcry when he attacked the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, calling him “the servant of France.”
Lawmaker Mustapha Ben Ahmed of the Tahya Tounes party said: “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.”
Opponents argued that such a move would spell economic disaster, given that France is Tunisia’s top trade partner and foreign investor. Some one million Tunisians also live in France.
The leader of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha was among those who said the motion could harm Tunisia’s economic interests and its most important international alliance. Others noted Tunisia’s years-long economic crisis and 15 percent unemployment rate and said the motion was too hastily prepared.
“We are not going to feed Tunisians with such motions,” said Osama Khelifi, of the Qalb Tounes party.
The North African country was a French protectorate from 1881 until it gained independence in 1956. A year later, it was declared a republic with Bourguiba as its president.
He was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1987 following allegations that he had become senile, and after doctors declared he was unfit to rule.
Then-Prime Minister Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was appointed president, a post he held until he was removed in the country’s 2010-2011 uprising.
The uprising was the trigger for similar revolts that toppled autocratic leaders across the region in a wave of protest dubbed the Arab Spring.