After invading Tunisia in 1881, the French installed a protectorate in which they shared power with the Tunisian ruling dynasty and, due to the dynasty’s treaties with other European powers, with some of their imperial rivals. This “indirect” form of colonization was intended to prevent the violent clashes marking France’s outright annexation of neighboring Algeria. But as Mary Lewis shows, France’s method of governance in Tunisia actually created a whole new set of conflicts. In one of the most dynamic crossroads of the Mediterranean world, residents of Tunisia—whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian—navigated through the competing power structures to further their civil rights and individual interests and often thwarted the aims of the French state in the process.
Over time, these everyday challenges to colonial authority led France to institute reforms that slowly undermined Tunisian sovereignty and replaced it with a more heavy-handed form of rule—a move also intended to ward off France's European rivals, who still sought influence in Tunisia. In so doing, the French inadvertently encouraged a powerful backlash with major historical consequences, as Tunisians developed one of the earliest and most successful nationalist movements in the French empire.
Mary Lewis is Professor of History at Harvard University. She specializes in Modern French and European social, legal, and political history. Her current research interests center around international and imperial history, the history of rights, and the connections between international relations and everyday local life.
Her most recent book, Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938, was recently published by the University of California Press. Based on archival research in four countries, Divided Rule uncovers important links between international power politics and everyday matters of rights, identity and resistance to colonial authority, while reinterpreting the whole arc of French rule in Tunisia from the 1880s to the mid-20th century. Her previous book, The Boundaries of the Republic: Migrant Rights and the Limits of Universalism in France (Stanford University Press, 2007), was a co-winner of the 2008 James Willard Hurst Prize awarded by the Law and Society Association for the best book in socio-legal history. She is beginning a new project on the "First French Decolonization" in the Atlantic world.
Institute of French Studies Colloquium