JUST a hundred years ago France undertook to give a long overdue lesson to the African pirates who infested the Mediterranean Sea and who had until then successfully resisted Europe's sporadic efforts to curb their activities. The "Algiers expedition" of 1830 was not a colonial enterprise. It was merely a punitive action which would have been undertaken long before by all the Powers concerned if each of them had not feared to give another a chance of gaining influence and prestige. In fact, when the French Government (facing a new revolution at home) finally showed itself determined to exact full reparation from the Dey of Algiers, who had insulted the French Consul and later fired on a vessel carrying a flag of truce, there was grave misapprehension on the part of the Court of St. James. Great Britain was strongly opposed to any French action on the African coast and did all in her power to prevent it. The French fleet nevertheless set sail from Toulon, with precise instructions as to the scope and duration of the expedition. There can be no doubt about the genuineness of those instructions. No Frenchman in those days foresaw any long-continued resistance from the Arabs nor thought that the expedition would not end with the bombardment of Algiers, and eventually Bone.

The expedition proved, however, to be the beginning of a conquest which lasted for over thirty years and ended with the organization of the whole of Algeria into three French provinces, or départements. But "pacification" remained inconclusive so long as Algeria could be menaced from the east. Frequent incursions of members of the Kroumir tribes from the neighboring Regency of Tunis led the French to negotiate with the Bey for better and safer relations. Unfortunately diplomatic endeavors are usually most unsatisfactory with countries where the power of the Sovereign is merely nominal and where the people revel in dilatory discussions. France experienced these difficulties to the greatest extent in her dealings with the Bey of Tunis, so that at the beginning of 1879 she had to send him an ultimatum and began to prepare for the occupation of a few points on the Tunisian coast.

Just as in 1830 France had to overcome the stubborn opposition of England, so in 1879 Italian agitation was supposed to be behind the obstinacy of the Bey. In the Tunisian affair, however, France now had two allies; one of them was her former opponent, Great Britain, who at the Congress of Berlin had bargained that the French should eventually establish themselves in the Regency in return for French acquiescence in British plans in Cyprus and elsewhere; the other ally was one which may have been least expected, namely Germany. Indeed, Bismarck wanted to keep France's eye away from the Vosges and was prepared to inform the Italian Government "should it have rash intentions on Tunis or should it simply appeal to Berlin, that French intervention in Tunis seemed to be commanded by circumstances and that, in his opinion, France was within her rights." It may be worth noting here that in the mind of Bismarck, as reflected in his correspondence and in that of his son Herbert, Great Britain should settle in Egypt, France in Tunis and Italy in Tripoli. Between 1879 and 1881, at any rate, the Chancellor did all he could, not only to help the French smooth over their difficulties with the Regency, but also to warn off the Italians, with the result that Italian endeavors to check French action remained without an echo in Europe, even in Constantinople, where Berlin's influence in favor of Paris proved most active and efficient.

France also found it necessary to protect her main colony, Algeria, from the west, and therefore soon had to turn her eyes toward Morocco. Let us not forget that the Madrid Conference met as early as 1880, and there again Bismarck lent France a helping hand. Later on, however, Franco-German relations changed entirely in character and the strongest and bitterest opposition against further French advances came from Berlin.

It was the Morocco affair, moreover, which brought about a radical turn in the general relations between the principal European Powers. The Franco-British Entente Cordiale was born on colonial fields; after one hundred years of rivalry in Africa, the Governments of London and Paris agreed in 1904 to compromise their conflicting claims and to live in peace thenceforth. But the agreement of 1904 was only the most celebrated and influential of a series of accords. Among others of importance were the ones signed in December, 1900, and November, 1902, according to which France left Italy a free hand in Tripoli whilst Italy recognized French "superior interests" in Morocco. Later, after the tragic negotiations which preceded the Treaty of Fez of March 30, 1912, at which time France was at last put in a position to exercise her Protectorate over the Shereefian Empire, another "declaration" was signed between Rome and Paris; the two Governments agreed, first, not to put any obstacles in the way of measures which might be taken by France in Morocco and by Italy in Lybia, and, second, to grant most favored nation treatment to each other both in Morocco and Lybia.

It is essential to recall briefly these historic steps in the formation of political North Africa in order to understand the present situation there, which though simple enough in its main elements is rendered intricate by international intrigue and national ambition.

Before we go any further, it might be well to point out that at the time France conquered Algeria there could not be any "Italian" opposition, for the obvious reason that the Italian nation had not as yet come into existence. Barely ten years had elapsed since the formation of the Kingdom of Italy when France signed the Treaty of the Bardo, which entitled her to exercise her Protectorate over Tunis, thus crushing temporarily young Italy's aspirations. At that time, Morocco was too undeveloped -- and as a matter of fact was too much terra incognita and too far from the Peninsula -- to arouse Italian hopes, and in 1902, when Rome and Paris came to terms on that question, Italy thought she had sufficient field for her activities in her new acquisitions in Tripoli. Moreover, her tragic failure on the Red Sea had somewhat dampened her colonial spirit.

How is it, then, that there should be so much friction today between "the two Latin sisters" in North Africa? How deeply is the trouble rooted and what prospect is there for arriving at a satisfactory solution? As a matter of fact, the friction is to be traced back to the domestic situations in the two countries and to their general relations to each other rather than to petty disagreements in Tunis and elsewhere. There are too great temperamental differences between Italy and France for them to love one another unconditionally. Their needs and their wants are too often contradictory to allow the cementing of a thorough-going friendship. In the colonial field alone, for instance, there is Italy's great grievance based on the fact that after the war she received no mandate over former German possessions. Now the governing influences at the Peace Conference were those of Wilson and Lloyd George -- but the covering letters were signed by Clemenceau! Italy claims, exactly as did Germany before the war, that as she is a late-comer in the colonial arena she has not obtained anything commensurate with her position nor adequate to take care of her overflowing population.

Tunis is an especially sore point with Italy. The country has been developed chiefly by Italian labor, as is shown by statistics, which in 1921 gave 85,000 Italians in the Regency against only 55,000 French. The census of 1926 alters the proportion, as it puts the French population at 71,000 and the Italian at 89,000. But this simply emphasizes the aggravating question of naturalization en masse, to which the Roman cabinet objects so strongly. By a decree dated November 8, 1921, and an act dated December, 1923, the French Government put the French Civil Code into force in Tunis. The weakness of this piece of legislation lies in the fact that Tunis is a Protectorate and not a colony, that, therefore, people born in Tunis of foreign stock may be Tunisians jure soli but should not be de facto French citizens. Both the decree and the act, however, specifically state that a person born in the Regency of parents (other than Tunisians) themselves born in Tunis is French by birth. The act applies even when only one of the parents was born in the Regency. Persons thus coming under the provisions of the act may claim the nationality of their foreign parent or parents, but with the restriction that their offspring cannot avail themselves of this favor. This was without doubt a dubious move on the part of France, the more so because it showed evident embarrassment over the prodigious increase in the Italian population. The Italian Government bitterly resented the naturalization law, which was defeated in some respects by The Hague Court. After having also opposed it, the British accepted it, maybe because of the Franco-British agreement relating to Tunis and Egypt, maybe simply because the British subjects involved were all Maltese. There were 13,500 of them in 1921 and only 8,400 in 1926, the difference accounting in part for the rapid increase of the registered French population between 1921 and 1926.

Forced naturalization en masse as contrasted with individual naturalization offers a fine debating subject for professional and amateur jurists. The press of both countries has not failed to register their claims pro and con. A point, however, has been left in the dark: what would have become of the controversy had the protected country, acting within its rights, decreed that Tunisian (not French) nationality was to be gained automatically and without restriction through birth on Tunisian soil? This would have been the adoption of a principle inscribed in the American immigration laws, according to which the origin of a person landing in the United States is decided solely according to the country in which he was born, regardless of parentage. Italy would probably claim, as she does today, that the question remains settled by the Consular Convention of September 28, 1896, Article XIII of which stipulates that Italians in Tunis shall retain their Italian nationality. This convention, however, was denounced by the French in 1921 and such denunciation is perfectly in order. Italy maintains that it is not. Her contention cannot be upheld. No treaty is eternal, especially when it contains a proviso governing its duration. The 1896 convention can evidently be revised, and failing Italian desire to negotiate another, the Bey, with the advice or consent of France, is at liberty to cancel it on maturity.

"We cannot accept the menace against Italian nationality in Tunis," is the cry sent up today from Rome. The force of the complaint is weakened by the fact that it applies not only to Tunis but to the whole of North Africa, and also extends to continental France itself. Since the number of Italian immigrants to the United States was greatly reduced by the quota law, the population in the Italian peninsula has had to find outlets elsewhere. Many have settled in France. Is the French Government any less able than the United States Government to restrict in any way it wishes the nationality of persons born on its own territory? Since the days of Grotius there have been conflicts of laws in such matters, and a considerable time will undoubtedly pass before they are finally settled. At the moment, discussion about the naturalization law in Tunis is particularly acute. It will only be smoothed over when the two principal parties have come to a satisfactory agreement on questions of general policy.

Italian contentions as to the economic progress accomplished in Tunis solely as a result of Italian labor are somewhat exaggerated. Labor is not everything. North Africa was most backward until the French took in hand the administration of the country, laid out roads and harbors, built houses, introduced and maintained peace. Much of the physical equipment may have been constructed with Italian hands, land may have been tilled by Sicilian farmers, but all this would have been quite impossible without the previous establishment of the higher organization essential to the maintenance of peace and order. This higher organization was the work of the French, and the French alone. They came in first, and arguments as to what "might have been" if others had taken their place in 1830, in 1880 and in 1912 are as sterile as would be Mexican claims to American border states on the grounds that since they came under American administration prosperity had replaced chaos and poverty, and that Mexican labor had been of use in bringing about the physical transformation.

Italian claims are weakened by other facts. An immense proportion of the Italians (and this applies equally to the Spaniards) in North Africa are engaged in menial trades -- and, incidentally, herein lies the secret of their relative failure as colonists. Coming into backward countries as direct competitors to the natives, they arouse hostility and injure their prestige, whereas the British and French awaken a certain amount of sympathy on account of the higher wages which their presence enables the natives to command. That the Italians are not supreme in North Africa is shown by the latest census. Out of a total foreign (non-Tunisian) population of 173,000 in 1926, there were 89,000 Italians, 71,000 French, 8,400 Maltese and 4,600 other Europeans. But the superiority is restricted to agriculture (15,412 Italians against 6,745 French) and commerce and trade (53,852 Italians against 17,162 French).

Although France has recognized Italy's full right to have her own schools and social organizations in Tunis, the number of Italian doctors, lawyers, professors, etc., is less than that of French -- 1,322 against 2,131. The fact that Italy is able to provide full education, from elementary to high schools, for her sons and daughters in the Regency is sufficient proof of France's liberal attitude, the more so as it is known that such schools are under the direct authority of the Government of Rome, which subsidizes them, supplies professors and schoolmasters, drafts the program of study, and supervises the whole system through its consuls, assisted by special academic envoys. Yet there are only about 10,000 boys and girls attending those Italian schools, while 9,954 young Italians prefer to use the French institutions. There are also Italian Chambers of Commerce, banks, branches of the "Italian Legion," sporting clubs and political newspapers.

Against all these Italian activities in Tunis France finds nothing to say. But she begins to resent symptoms of more direct Fascist action. For instance, there are a certain number of Italians who, while not accepting the naturalization decree of 1921, wish to avail themselves individually of the general facilities granted to foreigners to become French. They meet with such abuse and reprobation from newspapers and political organizations at home, however, that often they give up the idea and abandon the advantages which they feel would accrue from the possession of French nationality. Though this has awakened considerable feeling in France, there was no protest when Signor Mussolini in the spring of this year sent a special delegation to visit North Africa, to bring to the Italian communities there the backing of Fascism, provided they would affiliate with the great national organization in Rome.

What effervescence exists in Tunis itself is mostly due to a revival of Italicism. Italy, pressed on by the dynamic force of a dictator, gathering strength in greater national cohesion, anxious to obtain a place in the sun for an overflowing population, cut off by immigration restrictions from former outlets, has somehow or other to make elbow room for the future. She feels that it is easier to remove the frail barriers which stand in her way in "new lands" than to try and enter a wedge in older and more established countries where national sentiment might be more easily aroused against foreign activities or attempts at penetration. North Africa is only an episode on a far wider international chessboard. Italy has not abandoned hope of obtaining a revision of the allocation of mandates. Recent developments in the Tangier question show that she is able to re-open doors that had previously been closed to her. Unsuccessful claims in North Africa might be made to serve as a good springboard from which to enter the field of compensations.

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  • C. A. LE NEVEU, for several years Civilian Aide to Gen. Lyautey in North Africa, now Director General of the Union Coloniale Française
  • More By C. A. Le Neveu