April 9, 1938. An Expression of Anti-Colonial Anger

A powerful anti-colonial demonstration broke out in Tunis - completely out of the blue. April 9, 1938 was the culmination of a series of responses to relentless colonial repression. 
Written by | 09 April 2021 | 15 minutes | Available in ArabicFrench
"Guillon the victorious,
He defeated the Destourians
With a malicious smile
He betrayed the Tunisians."

Following the violence during the repression of April 9, the following extract (from a leaflet in French distributed by the Destourians) shows the disillusionment in the face of impossible negotiations with the colonising power. This day thus marked a turning point in the Tunisian nationalist struggle. Identified in official contemporary history as the "Day of the Martyrs" - April 9, 1938, took place within a tense national and international context.

The Shadow of Fascism

The beginning of 1938 was marked on a European level by the strengthening of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Germany's invasion of Austria on March 11 the same year caused concern for the French state, especially as it shared borders with Italian Libya through Tunisia. Thus, when the demands of the Tunisian nationalist party 'Neo-Destour' became more urgent, the French government claimed that there was a conspiracy with the Italian fascist regime.

This collusion was denounced by the Popular Front who were in power in France* at the time, and who were made up of a coalition of left-wing parties, including the French Communist Party. For the coalition, it was imperative to preserve the unity of the French empire in order to avoid the very worst. However, it is not clear whether it was concern for France or for the colonised peoples that prevailed. The secretary general of the PCF, Maurice Thorez, wrote that in order to "fight against fascism [...], the interest of the colonial people lies in their surrender to the French, and not in an attitude that could favour the enterprises of fascism and place [...] Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco under the rule of Mussolini and Hitler "**.  

In any case, it was this argument that the colonial newspapers put forward to criticise the Tunisian nationalist protest. It was said to be an attempt "to exploit the most unfortunate circumstances resulting from the global situation, as well as from the actions of the government whose goodwill [...], generosity and human nature [...] can no longer be disputed" ( La Dépêche tunisienne, April 9). However, French policy in Tunisia contradicted the newspaper's statement.      

A Hostile Colonial Policy

The rise to power of the political left in France in 1936 was initially promising. After the persecution of the former Resident General Peyrouton, nationalist activity developed intensely under the new Resident General Guillon who had been appointed by the Popular Front government. The prison camp in the middle of the desert, Bordj le Bœuf, was closed down and the political prisoners who held there (such as Habib Bourguiba) were released. But the fall of Léon Blum's government in June 1937 marked a failure in the negotiations for Tunisian independence, and French policy in Tunisia was tightened once more.   

A series of factors followed that fuelled resistance and political awareness, such as increased unemployment, impoverishment, risk of famine, dissolution of trade unions, surveillance of sports associations and students, strikes that were repressed in several mining centres, prohibition of the bearing the Tunisian flag, refusal of requests for a Tunisian parliament under the pretext that Tunisians would not be sufficiently evolved to have the right to universal suffrage*...  

The Bizerte incidents on January 8, 1938 (when police officers killed seven activists protesting against the secretary of the Destour cell in Bizerte being expelled to Algeria) gave rise to partisan tours calling for revolt and civil disobedience. The Neo-Destour was quickly accused of plotting against State security and of taking advantage of the political fragility of the French State to conduct a "campaign of hatred against France".

The party, led by its "hard-line" section (represented by Habib Bourguiba) after the defeat of the "soft-line" section (represented by Mahmoud el Materi) following its 1937 congress, was targeted by the authorities: some twenty activists or heads of Destourian cells were arrested throughout the country, including Slimane ben Slimane, Youssef Rouissi, Salah ben Yousef, Hedi Nouira and Mahmoud Bourguiba.

The population was already on edge, and events rapidly followed one another until the climax of April 9.  

April 7, the Eve of a General Protest

A demonstration takes place in front of the beylical palace of Hammam-Lif and a delegation is received by Ahmed II Bey, Tahar Sfar being one of them. The delegation protested against the prohibition of bearing the Tunisian flag, the closure of the Sadiki college and the prosecution of nationalist activists. The bey asked them to keep calml and promised to speak to the resident general. He gave his authorisation to bear the flag during the authorised demonstration due to take place the following day. Despite the legal status of this demonstration, the French authorities were concerned.   

"The popular sector is getting [...] very overexcited: the unemployed, the metouis and the 'zoufris' make no secret of their firm desire to provoke unrest [...] declaring that they are determined to sacrifice their lives for the cause of their country" (Report on April 7, 1938).

Dissensions were evident among the Tunisian political forces. The Old Destour party asked their supporters to not take part in the demonstration. The Tunisian Communist Party aligned itself with the concerns of the French government, and like the ruling Popular Front (of which the PCF was a part) it accused the Neo-Destour party's policy of "supporting fascism, which threatens Tunisia with military occupation". They found that the Neo-Destour desire "to incite civil unrest, not to submit to military service, to call for a tax strike [...] is tantamount to supporting fascist activities in Tunisia and [...] is reminiscent of collusion with Italian fascists. ("Resolution of the political bureau of the Tunisian Communist Party" published in the Avenir social, April 7).  

April 8, Elation Before the Upheaval 

The day of Apri 8l was characterised by activist elation throughout several cities, such as Moknine, Teboulba, Jemmal, Monastir, Djerba, Kalaa Kebira, Béja, Mahdia, Nabeul, Sfax, Sousse, Souk el Arba [now Jendouba], Bizerte, El Hamma, Testour... Various reports claim that thousands of demonstrators took part in this unprecedented event launched by the Neo-Destour party. In Tunis, groups of demonstrators set off from Bab Souika and Bab Jdid, before meeting at Bab Bhar to march to the headquarters of the General Residence [now the French Embassy]. According to police and newspaper reports, between 7,000 and 10,000 people took part in the demonstration.

The Neo-Destour demand for the closure of cafés and shops in the souks was largely respected. However, police reports note that some shopkeepers closed reluctantly. One report indicates that 300 "natives" armed with truncheons went through the El Grana souk to "force the Israelite traders who had kept their shops open to close through threats and vandalism". The aim, according to the report, was "to rally the Jewish population to join their processions which were due to demonstrate in front of the Residence, telling them that as 'Tunisians like us, you must join us'".

While presenting the Jewish population as a depoliticised community; inoffensive and only interested in running businesses, the police drew a contemptuous portrait of the demonstrators as "vulgar characters: porters, day labourers, shoeshine boys, children and students of the great mosque" who would have shouted "long live 'The Duce'! long live Mussolini, enough of this injustice, we don't want France in Tunisia any more!" 

Avenue Jules Ferry [now Avenue Habib Bourguiba] was filled with armour and barbed wire*. 

The authorised demonstration was held under the suspicious eye of the police who were watching and protecting the so-called "European" city. The procession was made up of men and women (300 women according to an article in the Arabic-language newspaper Az-zahra published the next day) bearing Tunisian flags. The ululations intertwined with the call for a "Tunisian parliament"; one group calling out "Tunisian" and the other answering with "parliament" (Arabic-language newspaper An-nahda, 9 April). On banners in Arabic and French, one could read "down with privilege", "national government", "Tunisians in power". The police were surprised by the participation of women, as they associated their presence with that of children: 

"Even the women, in between their ululations, called for a parliament. The children as well."

Tunisian National Archives

Mongi Slim, Ali Darghouth, Ali Belhouane and other party members addressed the crowd. Bchira Ben Mrad, president of the Muslim Union of Tunisian Women*, reportedly stood next to Ali Belhouane during his speech**.  

Tunisian National Archives

After the demonstration was dispersed and the groups of demonstrators returned to the so-called "Arab" area, Ali Belhouane was reported to have declared at Place aux Moutons that if the Neo-Destour detainees (arrested in March for "riotous language, disobedience, incitement to acts of sabotage and refusal of military service") were not released, the General Residence and the prison would have to be attacked. The words of this nationalist activist, already under close surveillance because of his anti-colonial teaching at Sadiki College, were recorded by a police informer, which resulted in him being summoned to appear before a judge the following day*.

By the end of the day's demonstration, which was supervised from start to finish by Neo-Destour members, the plan was to reconvene at another demonstration on April 10, in order to demand the release of the detainees. On April 9, the only event expected to take place was a meeting between a party delegation and the Prime Minister. However, the day did not go as planned and instead an unplanned demonstration broke out.

  Mapping an Insubordination