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Tunisia needs investor vote of confidence from Macron visit

French President Emmanuel Macron is due to attend an economic summit and hold discussions on trade and security cooperation between France and Tunisia. (Reuters)
LONDON: Emmanuel Macron’s first visit to Tunisia on Wednesday comes at a crucial time for the country, which is reeling from widespread protests against austerity measures implemented in this year’s budget.
Thousands of Tunisians joined demonstrations against steep price hikes in January as years of anger over soaring unemployment and the rising cost of living bubbled into the streets.
The French president is due to attend an economic summit and hold discussions on trade and security cooperation between France and Tunisia. He is also expected to address the Tunisian parliament during his visit, which will last two days.
The two countries have strong economic and cultural ties that date from Tunisia’s history as a French colony before gaining independence in 1956.
Analysts said support from France could provide a lifeline for Tunisia’s parched economy, which has seen little progress since the overthrow of former ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the 2011 revolution.
“France is Tunisia's first economic partner … the Tunisian government expects much support from the French,” said Tasnim Abderrahim, a Tunisian researcher at the European Centre for Development Policy Management.
This includes the possibility that Macron will agree to convert some of Tunisia’s debts to France, which amounted to around $1.6 billion in 2016, into investments. France was the second-largest investor in Tunisia in 2016 and is the country's largest trading partner in the European Union.
“Tunisia also expects more support from France at the EU level,” Abderrahim said, commenting on its recent removal from an EU tax haven blacklist after it was added last year in a move that was seen by the Tunisian government as “an unfair and unjustified decision that can only tarnish the reputation of the country.”
Economic uncertainty and two major terrorist attacks on tourist targets in 2015 have alienated international investors and deprived the Tunisian economy of much-needed investment.
Saad Aldouri, Research Analyst on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House said that French backing could inspire confidence and attract investment to wean people off the public sector and into private sector jobs.
“It’s up to France to lend support…. public confidence from Macron in Tunisia would go a long way toward re-building their case.”
However, analysts say the visit is likely to offer more diplomatic niceties than solid economic support.
"We can expect a lot of nice words but it's unlikely that Macron can offer anything on the scale of what Tunisia needs,” said Emma Murphy, professor of Political Economy at Durham University.
"The economy just cannot grow fast enough to create the number of new jobs needed every year, let along quality jobs that meet the education-fuelled aspirations of many young people.
Unemployment stands at around 15 percent in Tunisia, but soars to an estimated 30 percent among the country’s youth population, according the UN International Labour Organization.
Many of the countries problems are internal and require comprehensive reforms, which, more than seven years after the revolution, still haven’t materialized.
“Welfare support, subsidies and work-related benefits have been eroded so the bulk of the population is getting relatively poorer...the entire model is stuck in a downward spiral,” Murphy said.
"Tunisia needs a Marshall Plan and Macron doesn’t have that kind of money or clout.”
However, the French president can lead the way in encouraging more EU countries to lend support.
“Europe as a whole and France in particular could do a tremendous amount to make life better and more promising for Tunisians by increasing their opportunity to export into European countries,” David Mack, an expert with the Middle East Institute and former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
It’s also in Europe’s interests to do so, he added, with continued economic stagnation likely to result in “waves of migrations from Tunisia into Europe that would far exceed what has happened from Libya.”
“It’s the European countries that are going to be the primary victims if the situation in Tunisia continues to be stagnant economically.
“Macron and France could take an initiative for Europe to really make Tunisia economically prosperous and viable.”