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Tunisian PM defends economic policies as unrest spreads

FRANCE 24 | Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid spoke to FRANCE 24 on January 22, 2016
FRANCE 24 | Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid spoke to FRANCE 24 on January 22, 2016 FRANCE 24

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid told FRANCE 24 on Friday that his government is committed to tackling unemployment as protests spread across the North African nation in recent days.

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Essid’s exclusive interview with FRANCE 24 came as his government announced a nationwide curfew starting at 8pm on Friday following protests in several cities over high unemployment rates that left at least one person dead.

“We are aware of our difficult mission… and fully aware of the situation," said Essid. "But we are a young democracy. And in youth, there is a period of adolescence to navigate.”

As Essid defended his country’s economic policy, the French presidency announced that it will give Tunisia €1 billion over the next five years as part of an economic aid package.

"A major aspect of the plan aims to help poor regions and young people, putting the focus on employment," French President François Hollande’s office said following a meeting between him and the Tunisian prime minister on Friday.

A little more than five years after Mohamed Bouazizi, an impoverished Tunisian street vendor, set himself ablaze – sparking nationwide protests that spread across the Arab world – Tunisia has made considerable strides in its democratic transition. But economic woes continue to cripple the so-called cradle of the Arab Spring.

‘We do not have a magic wand’

Since he was nominated as prime minister a year ago, Essid has faced a host of challenges on both security and economic fronts.

Tunisia has the dubious distinction of exporting the highest number of fighters to the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. More than 3,000 Tunisians are believed to be fighting in the Middle East.

Instability in neighbouring Libya has also increased the security threat, with terrorist attacks over the past year targeting the Tunisia’s critical tourism industry. A March 2015 attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis killed more than 20 people, mostly European tourists. Three months later, two hotels were attacked in a tourist resort north of the city of Sousse.

Meanwhile poverty has been increasing. Unemployment stood at 15.3 percent in 2015, up from 12 percent in 2010 due to weak growth and lower investment.

On Wednesday, Tunisian authorities announced that it would hire more than 6,000 young people currently unemployed in Kasserine, a central Tunisian city that has seen clashes between police and protesters in recent days. The Tunisian government has also pledged to launch labour-intensive construction projects.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Essid said his government needed time to tackle the economic problems. "We do not have a magic wand to give a job to everyone at the same time," said Essid. "What is happening in Tunisia with the youth is not new. We inherited this situation… We need people to be patient."

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