Tunisians in France mobilize for landmark ballot

AP , Thursday 20 Oct 2011

The 600,000 strong Tunisian expat community in France gets its first opportunity to weigh in on their home country's politics, campaigners work hard to urge voting

Najoua Bennaceur campaigns in a street market, in Argenteuil, near Paris, Sunday, (Photo: AP).

With Tunisia's landmark election fast approaching, Najoua Bennaceur has kicked her campaign into high gear and taken her party's message to the streets of Paris and other cities in France.

Bennaceur, a Tunisian expatriate, is running for the so-called "North France" district seat in the race to elect an assembly that will take up the delicate task writing the North African nation's new constitution.

The election promises a first big taste of democracy for Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, 10 months after its longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was driven from power in a public uprising.

In a first for Tunisia, the 217-seat constituent assembly is to include representatives from the country's hefty expatriate population. More than 10,000 candidates from over 80 parties are competing overall, and 18 seats have been set aside for Tunisians living abroad.

The stakes of the vote — which is taking place on Sunday in Tunisia and Thursday through Saturday abroad — couldn't be higher. Tunisia's revolution inspired others across the region, and the election is widely seen as a litmus test for nascent democracy in the Arab world.

The historic significance of the race is not lost on Bennaceur and other politically minded Tunisians living in France, who've been conducting get-out-the-vote drives in the French capital and cities such as Lille and Strasbourg for months.

"There's real will for these elections to succeed to show the world that democracy can work in Arab countries," said Bennaceur, a 49-year-old mother of three. "There's a feeling that if we Tunisians can't do it, nobody can."

About 600,000 Tunisians live in France — about 6 percent of Tunisia's total population — and they are a major source of remittances that make up a sizable chunk of the economy in the sun-kissed but resource-poor nation.

Expatriates were largely ignored during Ben Ali's 23 years in power. They were prohibited from voting in legislative elections, and could only cast ballots in presidential races.

Ben Ali, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1987, won four times: His lowest score was 89 percent, and he won twice with more than 99 percent of the official vote count.

Since Ben Ali and much of his notoriously corrupt clan fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, Tunisia's interim government has made efforts to include expatriates in the democratic process — notably through the assembly seats.

Ten of the 19 seats will go to residents of France. In the 1960s, Tunisia's former colonial master recruited North Africans to work in French factories. France still now draws Tunisians from across the class spectrum.

Candidates and younger expatriates in France say they face the challenge of getting their fellow Tunisians to the polls to vote after decades of disenfranchisement.

"There's a lingering bitterness, a lack of confidence in the system," said Bennaceur, a 49-year-old mother of three, who heads the list of candidates from the center-right Afek Tounes party.

Dali Chammari, a 30-year-old investment banker and candidate for the rival PDP party, agreed.

"Up until now, Tunisians in France were always seen only as people who bought up real estate back home — people border guards could shake down every summer when we came back for vacation," said Chammari. "Now we've finally got an amazing opportunity to make ourselves heard."

The revolution galvanized many Tunisians in France who out of fear, disinterest or disgust had long kept their distance from the politics of their homeland.

"During the revolution, I was literally glued to my computer, following the protests on Facebook and Twitter 24 hours a day," said Walid Essaddam, a 28-year-old consultant from Tunis who's been living in France since he finished a prominent business school here. "When Ben Ali fell, I was so incredibly proud, and for the first time it felt like we could change our destiny. I wanted to be a part of that."

In the months that followed the revolution, Essaddam helped organize debates, colloquiums and other forums that allowed Tunisians here to test their newfound political freedoms. He later joined the same party as Chammari and is now among about 300 volunteers campaigning for the PDP.

Essaddam, Chammari and Bennaceur say the challenges of the campaign have been daunting. While the PDP existed under Ben Ali, Afek Tounes and most of the more than a dozen parties on the ballot in France were created from scratch after the strongman's ouster.

With shoestring budgets, the parties rely on dedicated volunteers who often follow long hours at their jobs with even longer hours organizing and campaigning. With no money for proper headquarters, officials from parties from across the political spectrum often meet at Starbucks.

Add to that the difficulties in campaigning in a third country, where expatriates are scattered about.

"We have some information about where the major Tunisian population centers are," said Chammari. "But what if we wanted to do a radio ad? What's the radio station of Tunisians in France? Who knows?" he asked with a shrug. "There's no media outlet here that allows you to speak to the Tunisian people as a whole."

So they go to where they have the best chance of finding Tunisians. Armed with statistics from the Tunisian Embassy, they have been focusing largely on the gritty suburbs that ring Paris.

Chammari and his supporters cruise around on Velib rental bike to hand out fliers, while Bennaceur and her team hit up local markets decked out in matching T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the party name and logo.

"First we approach people and ask, 'Are you Tunisian?' Mostly, they're Algerians or Moroccans, but if they are Tunisian, the next question is: 'Are you registered to vote?'" said Bennaceur.

"Obviously, we want to drum up support for Afek Tounes, but I really see it as my duty to get Tunisians informed and excited about the elections, no matter what party they end up voting for," she said.

Chammari's PDP is considered among the top potential challengers for the Islamist Ennahda Party, which leads the polls. Ben Ali's regime brutally crushed Ennadha in the 1990s, and it is now the best-organized force in the nation and appears poised to become the largest party in the assembly.

Ennahda has pledged to champion democratic values and women's rights, but its secular critics warn the party has a secret agenda to impose hardline Islam in a country founded, upon independence in 1956, on Turkish-style secularism and progressive personal status codes that declared men and women equal in rights and citizenship.

The specter of Ennahda has also pushed many France-based Tunisians to mobilize, lest a big Islamist win threaten the country's secular values.

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