Tunisian-owned Paris house reveals post-Ben Ali rifts
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Around 100 people have been evicted from a building in Paris that once belonged to Tunisia’s former ruling party. The wrangling over the property is seen as reflecting the emerging tensions in post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
A dozen young Tunisian immigrants loitered on the sidewalk of Rue Botzaris in Paris’ 19th arrondissement at noon on Thursday. The group, which included several teenagers, looked lost; some of them were barefoot.
In the early morning hours they were woken by police and told to leave the quarters they had called home for the past two weeks. Before January’s popular revolt that overthrew Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the building belonged to his now-dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party.
With the help of rights groups, the building began to house many Tunisians who arrived illegally in France after Ben Ali’s fall. A few dozen men were living on the property in early June; but on Tuesday, as many as 100 residents were forced out.
After the eviction, French police stayed on sight to prevent the young men from re-entering. “This building belongs to the Tunisian people,” protested 29-year-old Karim. He and the other young men say they didn’t have time to gather their belongings before they were led out. “We do not want to sleep outside tonight,” Karim insisted.
The reasons for the young men’s sudden eviction from the Parisian building are cursory and often contradictory. What is certain is that it has become a bone of contention for Tunisian expatriates in France.
According to Tarek Ben Hiba, the president of the Tunisian Citizen Federation (FTCR), a group representing Tunisians in France, the eviction was ordered by the Tunisian embassy, citing need of additional office space.
Ben Hiba said that earlier in the week diplomats assured his group that the building would officially be turned into a temporary home for Tunisians migrants. An official agreement was even ready to be signed by rights organizations and the embassy, he added.
“We thought the years of confrontation and duplicity were over. We thought we had finally found a friendly government and the support of the embassy,” lamented the organiser. No embassy official was available for comment on Thursday.
Karim and his now homeless compatriots say they crossed clandestinely into France from southern Europe. “There's still war in Tunisia, I could not stay there," said 39-year-old Reda. “We were starving back home” added 20-year-old Anis.
According to the immigrants, the reason for their eviction is the large quantity of potentially incriminating archives that were stored in two rooms of the building. According to the French news website Owni, these include thousands of documents from Ben Ali’s 23-year rule.
The Collective of French Tunisians (CTF), another immigrant rights group created after the Tunisian revolution and which claims it has been given authority over the building, has said it wanted to find safe storage for the documents.
According to Owni, some 1,000 documents were removed from the building by a CTF lawyer one day before the expulsion. “We noticed that some documents were disappearing,” said CTF president Toumi Lazhar. “The young men were selling them off… we wanted to put them in a safe location.”
According to Lazhar the documents could help Tunisian lawyers to bring members of Ben Ali’s former regime to justice. “We hope Tunisians will know the truth about the regime. We don’t want the documents to be used for extortion,” he added.
However, he also said that the recovery of the Ben Ali’s Parisian archives did not justify police intervention. He played down the importance of the documents, saying that “[Ben Ali officials] had a lot of time to remove the more compromising documents.”
Lazhar believes the expulsion of the young Tunisians was the result of mounting tensions among the building’s residents. Last Saturday, his organization decided it could no longer mediate in disputes between the building's residents.
“There was crime and fighting between the young men…they were aggressive. The Tunisian authorities had lost control of the place,” said Lazhar.
According to FTCR's Ben Hiba, the presence of Ben Ali loyalists in the building was at the source of the brewing tensions. “They want to regain their credibility by joining the immigrants ... That's what caused the clashes,” he said.
According to different sources, the majority of Tunisians who were living in the building were taken to a local police station before being redirected by bus to detention centres.
A police spokesman on Thursday would not confirm the men's detention. "One hundred people were calmly escorted out,” the spokesman said. Karim, Reda, Anis and the handful of other now homeless Tunisians said they did not know why they had been spared.
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