French PM visits Tunisia to strengthen ties and stem migration

France is expected to announce the donation of oxygen concentrators to three Tunisian hospitals to help fight Covid-19

Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, left, greets his French counterpart Jean Castex at Tunis-Carthage Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

French Prime Minister Jean Castex arrived in Tunisia on Wednesday on a whirlwind visit to strengthen France’s ties with its former protectorate and address crucial issues including Covid-19, the economy and migration.

The visit, which marks the third meeting of the High Council of Franco-Tunisian Cooperation, comes at an uncertain time for Tunisia, which has seen a sharp rise in coronavirus cases this spring while its economy continues to contract.

During the visit, France is expected to announce the donation of oxygen concentrators to three major Tunisian hospitals to help with the oxygen shortage the country faces as the pandemic continues to ravage parts of the population.

At the heart of the trip is a 350 million euro aid package France promised last year. So far, only 100 million euros have been remitted to Tunisia, with the delivery of the rest of the aid package dependent on Tunisia’s ability to implement reforms.

But Tunisia's government is at a standstill, with little political will to compromise or create meaningful policy. Reforms proposed last month to help secure an IMF loan, including slashing subsidies on food staples, have raised ire throughout the populace.

France is also hoping to persuade Tunisia to improve its border security and stem the flow of migration with a 10 million euro package. Last year, Tunisian nationals made up 15 per cent of irregular migrants into Europe, with many making the treacherous crossing from Tunisia to Italy, with many then pressing on to France.

Talks will also focus on strategies to reduce terrorism.

Last autumn, after a young Tunisian national killed three people in Nice, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin paid an official visit with a list of names of radicalised Tunisians living in France, with the demand that they be repatriated. Tunisia refused, claiming they were radicalised in France and are unwelcome at home.

Mr Darmanin, who is one of six other ministers accompanying Mr Castex on the trip, will once again press Tunisia to repatriate those individuals.

To drive the message home, the French delegation’s short visit will culminate with a memorial at the Bardo museum, to commemorate the lives lost during the 2015 terror attacks which left 24 dead, including four French.