Administration of the Protectorate
After the Al Marsa Convention the hey continued to appoint a cabinet, but its members were named on the advice of the resident general, whose approval was required to validate every action taken by the beylical government. The resident general, who was responsible directly to the French foreign minister, was ex officio foreign minister in the Tunisian government, and his control over its foreign affairs was unquestioned. He was both the political representative of the French Republic in Tunisia and the protectorate's chief administrative officer, assisted in that task by a council of ministers composed of the bey's prime minister and two other Tunisian cabinet officers, as well as by 10 to 12 French department heads seconded for service in the Tunisian government.
Although the bey was legally the source of all authority, the resident general, who was usually given considerable latitude by Paris in determining policy, exercised the beylical authority through a highly centralized administration operated by a staff of French bureaucrats whose influence stretched from the bey's palace to the lowest level of local government. After 1896 the Consultative Conference, a body composed of Tunisian delegates appointed by the resident general and representatives elected by French residents, was impaneled to advise the resident general on a broad range of topics, but it did not have the power either to introduce measures or to question executive actions. French legislation did not apply in Tunisia, although laws enacted in France were often introduced by beylical decrees.
Reformed local government followed recognizably traditional patterns but was made more systematic and became uniform in its organization in most parts of the country. Five regions (provinces) were created (Tunis, Bizerte, Kef, Sousse, and Sfax) and were administered by French regional chiefs. The regions were subdivided into 19 districts, each under a French civil controller. These were further divided into the traditional qaidats and, in the countryside, shaykhats. Special status was given to 59 municipal communes that provided local government for the cities and larger towns in each district. In the south the so-called military territories came under the jurisdiction of French army area commanders, whose mission it was to keep the peace in the sparsely settled hinterland as well as to defend the ill-defined border with Turkish-controlled (and, after 1911, Italian-controlled) Tripolitania.
The functions of the qaids and shaykhs under the protectorate were unchanged - to collect taxes and maintain order in the countryside. A native gendarmerie served under the orders of the qaids, who worked closely with French police superintendents. Appointed by the hey on the recommendation of the resident general, the qaids and shaykhs were intended to be an important link between the French authorities and the rural population. French policy favored these secular officers over the ulama and the qadis, who had been indifferent, when not openly hostile, to the reform movement.
Although drawn from the traditional leadership in the countryside, the shaykhs were increasingly resented as being agents of the French and became alienated from the people whom they governed. The Tunisian court system, like the central administration and local government, was reformed and then operated under French tutelage. Sharia courts administered law affecting the personal status of Tunisians in such areas as marriage and inheritance, but, through usage, principles of the French legal code were gradually imposed on Islamic law. Laws of property in particular were modified in this manner. Decisions of the sharia courts affecting Europeans were automatically subject to review by civil magistrates, and all criminal cases were reserved for French courts. Appeals from both the sharia courts and the French courts in Tunisia were made in the first instance to the Court of Appeal in Algiers and ultimately to the Court of Cassation (French superior court of appeal) in Paris.
Before World War I the French army routinely stationed about 25,000 men, including units of the Foreign Legion, in Tunisia. Tunisians as well as all French citizens resident in Tunisia were subject to French military service, although in practice few Tunisians were called because volunteers were so plentiful. Tunisian infantry regiments - tirailleurs (riflemen) - and mounted spahis served under French officers as part of the regular French army in Tunisia and in various parts of the French colonial empire. The hey's own French-trained "army" numbered only about 600 men and was employed for ceremonial purposes. Bizerte was developed as a major French naval base strategically located at the narrows of the Mediterranean. Observers testified that possession of Bizerte alone would have made the Tunisian protectorate worthwhile.
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