Should Tunisia be following the French model of doing business? Or not…


We are a pretty confused lot, it strikes me, as I think about two parallel complaints from and about two different parts of the world – Tunisia and France.

Tunisia has not done capitalism successfully enough, so goes the lament.

And France should not be trying to do capitalism successfully, so goes the other lament.

Let’s examine the facts of both cases.

Inflation has hit 8.1 per cent in Tunisia and there is widespread dissatisfaction over its moribund economy. Tunisia’s economic growth has averaged a dispiriting 1.8 per cent between 2011 and 2020, which is to say the decade since the uprising that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians are unhappy that their economy contracted by 9.3 per cent in 2020 because of the pandemic. And they are despairing that unemployment stubbornly stands at 16.8 per cent, even hitting a high of 38.5 per cent among the young. Up goes the wail: Tunisia needs to do more to become business-friendly; more nimble; more willing to apply hard-eyed balance sheet logic to the bureaucratic impasse, the public wage bill and so on.

As for France, President Emmanuel Macron is being criticised for delivering on his stated 2017 aspiration to turn France into “a start-up nation,” a country that draws tech talent and investment and promotes blue skies thinking and tech unicorns a la Silicon Valley. Mr Macron set 2025 as the cut-off year for a stock take of the ambitions to have 25 tech unicorns. But France has already achieved the goal. In January, Mr Macron praised the emergence of 25 French tech “unicorns” — now each valued over $1 billion. According to some accounts, by 2019, France had thrown off its moribund image of statism and become the leading destination for foreign investment in Europe.

It was Mr Macron who made this happen. He cut the corporate tax rate, set a flat tax on capital gains and streamlined the labour code to make it easier to hire and fire. His government offered tax credits to certain kinds of tech companies. He won American investment for his country and he reaped the inevitable bounty: accusations that he was promoting the “Uberisation” of France, hacking at social capital and cancelling workers’ rights.

Obviously, Tunisia would want to follow the French model, but that is regarded as hideous and socially disfiguring even by the French.

We will explore the conundrum further, for sure,  although I’m not sure we’ll arrive at any viable conclusions.