The motion to demand an “official and public apology from the French state for crimes was presented by the Islamist nationalist party Coalition Al Karama, which has just 19 lawmakers in the 217-seat assembly.
Opponents argue that such a move would spell economic disaster, given that France is Tunisia’s top trade partner and No. 1 foreign investor. It’s also home to 1 million Tunisians.
Proponents of the motion said an apology is necessary to “turn the page on this dark period” in the history of the two countries and put their relations on a more equal footing.
The debate came amid renewed anger in some European countries about colonialism’s crimes, stemming from protests in the U.S. over racial injustice and police violence after George Floyd’s death.
France occupied Tunisia as a protectorate for 75 years, from 1881 until 1956. French soldiers only left Tunisian territory in 1963.
The debate was rejected early Wednesday after 14 hours of debate, with 77 legislators voting in favor, 46 abstentions and five votes against. To be adopted, it needed an absolute majority of 109 votes.
The bill also demanded “compensation to the Tunisian state and to all those who suffered the pain of colonization.”
“We are not animated by any bitterness or hatred, but such apologies will heal the wounds of the past,” argued the president of Al Karama, Seifeddine Makhlouf.
He used the example of Germany, which apologized to France after the Nazi occupation, noting that the two countries “are now allies and the leading partners in Europe.”
However, he 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 generalizing education and by emancipating women.”
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% 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.