Tunisian president Essebsi on two-day visit to France

The Tunisian head of state was in Paris for the first time since his election in December, signifying an improvement in strained bilateral relations.

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French President François Hollande pledged to build constructive ties with Tunisia on Tuesday as his counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi launched a two-day official visit to Paris, three weeks after a jihadist gunman killed 22 people at Tunis’s Bardo Museum, reports Radio France Internationale (RFI).

Several points of friction between the leaders were evident ahead of the meeting, though a number of observers have told RFI the relations are now moving in a constructive direction.

Hollande began the visit by promising “exemplary cooperation” between the two countries in terms of security, trade and cultural ties in a joint press conference with Essebsi at the Invalides palace in Paris, a sign seen as a gesture of support for the country’s democratic transition.

Essebsi himself told French newspaper Le Monde ahead of the visit that Tunisia was “open to any sort of cooperation in the cultural, scientific, economic, political and even security domains”.

However, several instances ahead of the visit suggested there are some tensions between the leaders, despite the long-held historical and cultural ties between the two countries.

Essebsi’s first official visit to Europe after his election in December 2014 was to Germany, which has been suggested as a show of thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel for supporting his party, Nidaa Tounes.

Read more of this report from RFI.

Essebsi himself recalled in French magazine Paris Match on March 27th that he remembered Hollande was a supporter of his election rival, former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki.

But the tone is different now that the official visit has come.

“Whether the first visit is to France or Germany or another country, our relations and trade relations are mainly with France,” said Mehdi Zaoui, a politician in the Nidaa Tounes party.

“French investments are important here, with ties and a friendship that are very old. Surely there are sometimes ups and downs, but the main thing is that it is a good, strong relationship that Essebsi’s state visit will tighten and consolidate.”

Hollande has visited Tunisia several times throughout his presidency, a sign that French authorities have sought to improve relations following the revolution of 2011.

“Tunisians will always remember the French position during the revolution, when [then-president] Nicolas Sarkozy’s government was supporting the dictator Ben Ali until the last moment,” said Amira Yahyaoui, president of pro-democracy group Al Bawsala.

But Yahyaoui believes that France under Hollande has worked to move beyond this stage.

“I think today we’re seeing a new way forward for the relationship,” she told RFI. “Tunisia has changed its position towards France. We’re the first democracy in the region, the only success story, and we’re not coming to beg for support but to talk as peers.”

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