La Campagne de Tunisie:
French Tunisia

French rule came to Tunisia in late April 1881, when a French column from Algeria pursued raiders across the border. An occupying army of 28,000 followed immediately on their heels, and soon the region’s ruler, Bey Muhammad III as-Sadiq had little choice but to accept a French protectorate two weeks after the first French soldiers entered his territory.

Unknown to the Bey and his subjects, Tunisia had been bartered away three years earlier at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, where Britain offered to support French acquisition of Tunisia in exchange for acceptance of the British takeover of Cyprus. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, hoping to re-direct French attention overseas and away from the “lost provinces” of Alsace and Lorraine, encouraged the move.

Italy, not consulted about the transaction, objected stridently. The Italian press seethed with rage, labelling the French move the “Slap of Tunisia.” About 10 percent of Tunisia’s one million inhabitants were Italians, most of them either recent arrivals from Sicily and Sardinia or their children. Taking advantage of the crisis, Austria-Hungary encouraged Italian resentment and almost exactly one year after the French invasion of Tunisia, Italy signed the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Sadiq Bey’s signature did not by itself secure Tunisia for the French. If the ruler did not want to fight the invaders, at least of his subjects did. Tunisia’s second-largest city, Sfax, defied French occupiers and suffered a heavy naval bombardment followed by the landing of 32,000 troops and house-to-house fighting.

Claudia Cardinale was born in Tunisia to an Italian colonist family.


While the French occupied the capital of Tunis and nearby port of Bizerte with little trouble, resistance flared across southern Tunisia. The French suppressed it ruthlessly, while over 100,000 people – a tenth of the population – fled as refugees. By the autumn of 1882 the fighting had stopped, and in June 1883 Tunisia formally became a French protectorate.

French rule maintained the pretense of Tunisian sovereignty: the bey continued in his palace, surrounded by government ministers who oversaw nothing of import. A French Resident-General officially “advised” the bey and his prime minister, but had the power to issue executive decrees on his own authority, which reduced the bey to a powerless figurehead. The old court system, based on shari’a law, continued to adjudicate issues between Tunisians, but cases involving a European as one or both parties were now heard in new French courts using French law.

In contrast, a new school system enrolled both European and local children, though they rarely mixed. Teaching was in both French and Arabic, but only about 20 percent of eligible children enrolled as Arabs, Jews and Italians all kept their children out of the public system.

During the 1880’s, French policy at home viewed the army as the “school of the nation.” Conscripts were forbidden to speak their own language – Provençal, Breton, Alsatian German, Occitan – and imbued with French patriotism, French culture and most of all the French language.

That was never to goal of overseas French colonialism; local elites would be co-opted and encouraged to speak French, dress like the French and imbibe French culture, but the vast majority of local people would serve as a source of labor and taxes. Later slogans aside, the goal of colonialism was never to make Arabs, Africans or Asians into Frenchmen, but rather the servants of Frenchmen.

In 1884, the French began recruiting Tunisians into their service, establishing the 4é régiment de tirailleurs tunisiens (three regiments of Algerians had been formed in 1842). The regiment had a French cadre, and initially included both Algerians already serving the French and men recruited from the Bey of Tunis’ army. A cavalry regiment, the 4é régiment de spahis tunisiens, followed two years later (again following the numbered sequence of Algerian units).

For the next three decades, the one infantry regiment – varying between three and five battalions – sufficed for internal-security duties and to divert military-minded locals from crime or resistance. Tunisians also saw action in French colonial campaigns outside their country, chiefly in Morocco. The First World War, and France’s insatiable need for more manpower, changed all that.

Conscription had been introduced in Algeria in 1912, but was not extended to Tunisia (which was, supposedly, not French sovereign territory). Recruiters managed to induct thousands of young Tunisian men nonetheless; an 8th Regiment had been formed in 1913 as European tensions rose and the French colonial army conducted a bloody campaign in Morocco.

Spahis intimidate rioters in Bab Souika Square, Tunis, November 1911.

Each peacetime regiment formed a “régiment de marche” in the fall of 1914, originally intended as an administrative organization to bring additional troops to the front but eventually committed to combat as separate regiments and designated as the 24th and 28th regiments. The 16th Regiment came along in 1915, initially including both Tunisian Tirailleurs and French Zouaves (troops recruited in Algeria from French settlers and North African Jews).

The Tunisian regiments saw intense action on the Western Front as part of Moroccan or Colonial infantry divisions. Out of 63,000 Tunisians who served 16,509 were killed in action, a substantially higher rate (26.2 percent) than that of the French Army as a whole (an already-horrific 16.2 percent).

France continued to draw heavily on Tunisian manpower during the decades after the Great War, calling on Tunisian regiments as occupation troops in the Rhineland and to fight in colonial wars elsewhere in Africa. By the eve of the Second World War, two new infantry regiments had been added and the “mixed” unit had converted to Tunisian manpower. The 4th Spahis remained the only cavalry regiment.

Tunisia shared a border with the Italian colony of Libya, and in 1936 the administration began construction of a fortified position known as the Mareth Line. With only a limited garrison expected to be available, the line was placed well inside Tunisian territory, stretching 45 miles from the Mediterranean coast to the Matmata Hills, thought to be impassable to organized formations of troops. Even as the line was laid out some French staffers pointed out even if the hill country could not be penetrated, a mobile enemy could move around them to the west.

Construction proceeded anyway. The line, though modeled on the Maginot Line sheltering the border of eastern France, lacked the deep underground shelters and barracks, armored gun turrets and narrow-gauge underground supply railroads. But it had concrete fighting positions, reinforced trenches, fortified command posts and protected supply depots, and firing lanes had been cleared of obstructions.

Two Tunisian infantry regiments deployed to France in the summer 1939 mobilization, as part of the crack North African divisions. Two remained in Tunisia as part of the Tunis Division, while one infantry regiment and half of the cavalry regiment joined the French garrison in Syria. The two new regiments went to France in the spring of 1940 as part of the hasty reinforcement of the Metropole, and rest of the Tunis Division followed, re-named the 84th Division d’Infanterie Africaine.

To replace the troops sent to France, the Armee d’Africa formed new divisions from new recruits, recalled reservists and the small number of experienced troops left behind. Three of these scratch divisions went to screen the border with Italian-ruled Italy and garrison the Mareth Line. Italian troops probed over the border and skirmished with the French, but no serious combat took place.

Following the collapse of French defenses, French commander in chief Maxime Weygand shot down proposals to continue the war from North Africa, citing the denuding of the theater to provide troops for the main front. Negotiations following France’s June 1940 armistice with Germany initially set a limit on French forces in Africa at 100,000, but subsequent talks led to several increases as the Germans hoped to encourage the French to defend their empire from the British.

Tunisia’s French garrison now numbered three infantry and two cavalry regiments, only one of each Tunisian. Most French manpower remained in Algeria, the core of the overseas empire. The Germans did not interfere with the Bey of Tunis’ tiny army, and he retained his 500-man ceremonial force.

Tunisian troops in Italy, 1944.

The Vichy government sent out a new general-resident, Admiral Jean-Pierre Esteva who cracked down on Tunisian political activity. Bourguiba’s independence movement reduced its activities, figuring the Nazi side far worse than that of Vichy. Esteva pressed the Bey, Ahmad II, to adopt Vichy’s anti-Jewish regulations, and the puppet ruler went along, apparently reluctantly. Ahmad died in June 1942 and his successor and cousin, Mohammed VII “Moncef” Bey, flatly refused to execute the laws against Jews, citing his role as ruler and protector of all Tunisians of all faiths.

Angered by the resident general’s refusal to name any Tunisians to his staff, Moncef Bey demanded Esteva’s removal. The Vichy government refused, and in turn demanded the Bey’s loyalty when Allied troops landed in neighboring Algeria. Despite his appointment of a pro-American prime minister, or perhaps because of it, the Free French deposed Moncef Bey when they took over administration of Tunisia in May 1943. The remaining Tunisian regiment (the 4th) saw action in Italy and Western Europe as part of the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division.

After the war, France attempted to re-assert control of Tunisia, but growing unrest and demands for independence eroded the protectorate’s authority. Finally in 1955, in the wake of disaster in Indochina and Algeria, the French sought a quick and peaceful end to their rule in Tunisia. The Kingdom of Tunisia declared in March 1956 marked the territory’s first fully-independent government since the fall of Carthage, and gave to a republic a year later.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.

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