France's Macron visits Tunisia to 'support transition'

Tunis - French President Emmanuel Macron is to visit Tunisia on Wednesday to "support the democratic transition" of a country still battered by economic stagnation and social unrest seven years after its revolution.

His arrival comes after several hundred people were arrested in Tunisia this month in protests fuelled by unemployment, corruption and austerity measures in the 2018 budget.

The French presidency said his visit, starting on Wednesday afternoon, aims "to support the Tunisian democratic experience, the only successful transition experience after the Arab Spring" of 2011.

Macron is to address the People's Assembly on Thursday as well as meeting officials and civil society leaders and members of the public.

Macron has talked up ties between France and its former colony, hosting his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi in December and declaring that "the relationship with Tunisia is a priority".

But analysts say the Tunisian public is sceptical towards pledges of overseas aid.

"They are not expecting much from foreign officials' promises of support, which they only half believe," said Tunisian political scientist Selim Kharrat.

"In 2011, we were promised a Marshall Plan and exceptional aid, which never arrived."

More recent promises "were rarely followed by facts that were palpable on the ground", he added.

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Macron is set to sign a series of economic, security, academic and cultural agreements during his talks with Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

The French president told Tunisian daily La Presse he would use his visit to announce "an additional effort in at least three areas: the reduction of inequalities, social and territorial, the employability of young people... and increased investment" in sectors including renewable energy and new technologies.

He said Tunisia needed to push ahead with reforms in order to attract more foreign investment.

 Economic woes 

Successive governments have struggled to revitalise Tunisia's economy since 2011, especially after deadly jihadist attacks in 2015 dealt a major blow to the key tourism sector.

Tunis did secure a $2.9bn IMF loan in return for a reduction in its budget deficit and other financial reforms.

But unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and an austerity budget and hikes in value added taxes sent demonstrators onto the streets in early January.

France has said it wants to help Tunisia tackle joblessness, which remains above 15% overall and over 30% among the young, despite a slight uptick in economic growth last year.

Paris has also called on French firms to "invest massively" in Tunisia.

Arabic-language newspaper Assabah said Tunis wanted to use the visit "to find a solution to Tunisia's debt to France", which stood at around 800 million euros at the end of 2016, according to official figures.

Assabah said 30 million euros of debt would be converted into investment projects, something France has not confirmed.

Macron is set to sign a deal on closer counter-terrorism cooperation and to visit the National Bardo Museum, the site of a deadly Islamic State group attack in 2015.

He is travelling with his wife Brigitte, senior officials including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and business executives.

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