Farhat Hached and the Struggle for Tunisian Independence
(originally published on December 31, 2009; revised, updated on March 29, 2010, April 10, 2010)
Section Toulon of La Ligue des Droits Humaines (The Toulon [France]Chapter of the Human Rights League)
Citoyens des Deux Rives (in French)
L’assassinat de Farhat Hached ou le crime impuni (in French) by Juliette Bessis
Part two of a series on Farhat Hached, Tunisian Trade Union and Independence Leader…
Farhat Hached (1)
Some 8 years ago there was much activity in Tunisia and among the Tunisian Community in France, remembering Farhat Hached. 2002 marked the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Long after his death, Hached’s memory remains alive in Sousse where there is both a `Place Farhad Hached’ and a hospital named for him, a soccer stadium on his home island, Kerkennah just to name a few of the memorials left to commemorate his life. A few years before 2002, several books, memoirs and articles had appeared fingering the French authorities; in one case, someone who claimed to be a part of the `hit man’ team, admitted to involvement in the crime.
Hached’s wife and one of her sons appealed to the French government to release documents relevant to his death, but to no avail until now. Having received no response, on March 16, 2010, less than a month ago, the family along with several human rights organization formally lodged a complaint at the Tribunal de Grande Instance (Supreme Court of France for Civil Matters) in Paris asking the French government for `an apology for war crimes’. According to Houcine Bardi, representing the family and Patrick Baudoin, attorney representing the Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme the Geneva Convention applies because the facts are, if not based upon a war sitution, that of an `armed conflict’. The case is currently being considered.
All indications suggest that the Tunisian trade union organizer’s life was cut short by French intelligence services in cooperation with a local colonial terrorist ring, The Red Hand (Le Main Rouge). The Red Hand was a mix of local French colonial police, intelligence agents, military and government officials mingled with run of the mill colonial racist types whom together – and in tandem with French colonial authorities – set up what amounted to a `hit squad’ targeting those who challenged French colonialism most effectively. With the likely coordination of state authorities, victims were chosen for elimination and unceremoniously shot down all over the country – an example of the fate of those who spoke to freely of independence. Farhat Hached was not the only target. Others were targeted in the period during 1952 when Tunisia was run by a governor-general, Jean de Hauteclocque. Among those who died in the same period were Hedi Chaker (a hospital and school are named after him in Sfaz) and Dr. Abderrahmin Mami (a hospital named after him in Ariana).
Hached and Bourguiba
Probably the least known of the three discussed in Part One of this series – Ben Barka, Lumumba and Hached – is Farhat Hached, both because he died a bit before Lumumba and Ben Barka and because events in Tunisia and Tunisian history are generally poorly covered here in the United States if at all. I had read about him, and knew he was a trade union leader active in Tunisia’s independence movement but was, admittedly, not cognizant of his important leadership role. Along with Habib Bourguiba, his more conservative – or as they say in the language of the US State Department – more `moderate’ colleague, Hached literally led the independence movement. Had he survived there almost certainly would have been some kind of power struggle between the two.
The fact that Hached was assassinated before Tunisian independence in 1956 seemed to have opened the path for Bourguiba to come to power with little opposition from within the movement. In the aftermath of independence and having established his own grip on power that lasted nearly 30 years, Habib Bourguiba could be magnanimous about honoring Hached, his main competition for leadership. Antoine Melero, the would be `Red Hand’ member, (mentioned above) who claims to have participated in Hached’s 1952 assassination, implicated Bourguiba in the murder asserting that he, Bourguiba was informed beforehand and approved the plan. It is not impossible that Bourguiba and the French had worked out some kind of a deal but it will take more than the word of a would-be assassin to substantiate it. Still, there is not unreasonable to assume that Bourguiba’s path to power was made much easier by Hached’s elimination and that the French were by no means saddened by the event which it seems they probably facilitated if not executed.
Snuffing out the Left Wing of Third World Nationalist Movements
There is another aspect to Hached’s murder which resulted in his being knocked out of contention. It was not so unusual in Third World anti-colonial movements for the workers and peasants to do the political organizing (and add here – suffering and dying) only to be boxed out of power with their economic, social and political rights either slowly (or not so slowly) chipped away by the regimes that came to power. By killing Hached, France was assured a more pliant post-independence partner with them they could `deal- – meaning that while ceding political power to an independent Tunisian government, they could still maintain substantial economic clout behind the scenes – a classic example of what later became called `neo-colonialism’.
Tunisia in the early 20th Century
Farhad Hached was born into a Tunisia that had been a full-fledged French colony since 1881 (although it was referred to as a `protectorate’). French colonialism in Tunisia was never as extensive, as penetrating, as it was in neighboring Algeria, nor was the history at the outset and end of the Tunisian colonial era as violent, although it was still, violent enough. The settler population was smaller than in Algeria with a greater sprinkling of Italians (Tunis lies a mere 90 miles from Sicily across the Mediterranean). And when push came to shove – as it inevitably did after World War II – with Tunisians demanding independence the process of `decolonization’ was not as cruel. France was, under certain terms (to be discussed below) willing to let Tunisia and Morocco go, but hoped to keep Algeria, whose economic and strategic potential they viewed as far greater, within their grip.
Still the independence movements in the neighboring North African countries shared certain common themes.
For example, in the period before World War II, the call was less for outright independence and more for equal rights and political, economic and social integration with the French colon population – French citizenship on equal terms – which the anti-colonial movements knew to be unlikely given the structure of colonial life in both Algeria and Tunisia. After World War II, especially after the demonstrations for independence and the severe repression which followed in Setif, in eastern Algeria in May of 1945 not far from the Tunisian border, the focus of the human rights movements shifted from civil rights to independence movements and complete separation from the colonial legacy.
The Man from Kerkennah
Farhad Hached, was born on Kerkennah, an island chain 12 miles off the Tunisian coast from Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city.2 In 1929, forced to leave school at the age of 15, and seek employment because of his father’s death, Hached found work in Sousse, some miles up the coast halfway between Sfax and Tunis with la Société du transport du Sahel (The Sahel Transportation Company) as a mail courier (convoyeur). Almost immediately some of his other talents surfaced. He wasted no time in organizing a union of transport workers, which affiliated with the France-based Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT).
Hached’s union activities continued and soon he became active beyond the transport workers and involved in regional and national union organizing drives, for which, eventually in 1939 he was fired.
Difficult years followed during World War II, when Tunisia was ruled by Vichy French and temporarily occupied by the Nazis until British and US armies liberated it in May of 1943. After the liberation Hached was rehired by the Free French colonial government to direct its Public Works Department in the Sfax region. He immediately went back to union organizing, and now, employed, took the hand of a Kerkennah cousin, Emma Hached.
Hached Breaks with the CGT
Soon thereafter, Hached broke with the CGT for which he had organized for 15 years. He, and other Tunisian trade unionists were critical of the positions taken within the French union by socialists and communists who ignored – and did not support – the Tunisian call for independence from France. The split was significant as it marks the beginning of an independent Tunisian trade union movement with its own leadership and cadre split off from the colonial center in Paris. Hached’s experience, having `grown up’ politically and as a union organizer within the CGT (as either a member or supporter of the French Communist Party – I do not know the exact details here) was by no means unique. Another North African, whose evolution paralleled Hached’s is the Algerian trade unionist and anti-colonial militant Messali Hadj.4
Soon after the split from the CGT, Hadj, in concert with other Tunisian trade unionists began the process of bringing together an independent Tunisian national trade union movement. His first effort was to create what was referred to as the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of the South – meaning the south of Tunisia. (L’union des syndicats libres du Sud) based upon a three point program: 1. Social Justice 2. Equality between Tunisian and French workers (working in Tunisia) 3. Support for national independence and an end to French colonial rule. Not long afterwards, he organized, or was involved in organizing a similar federation in the North of the country which came together in Tunis and shortly thereafter, logically, the two federations merged, in 1946, to form the General Union of Tunisian Workers (L’Union generale tunisienne de travail – UGTT).
Farhad Hached – First Secretary General of the General Union of Tunisian Workers
At the tender age of 30, Farhat Hached was unanimously elected as secretary general of Tunisia’s independent trade union movement.
From the outset, Hached directed the energies of the UGTT ending colonialism and winning independence for Tunisia. Autonomous of French influence and completely independent politically, the trade union movement became one of the main bases for support for the broader nationalist movement led by Habib Bourguiba and his pro-independence Neo-Destour Party. The strikes, demonstrations and agitation for independence from 1946 onward intensified and did the calls by the UGTT to improve the standard of living of Tunisian workers living and working under colonial conditions with all the indignities involved. As a result of this focused, controlled militant activity, the mood of the country as a whole radicalized. Then in 1949, the UGTT became the Tunisian branch of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) which gave Hached international connections and influence far beyond Tunisia’s borders. In a few short years he had become an international personality, and as such was able to present the cause of Tunisian independence internationally.
Accomplishments in five short years
Five years later, – and a year before he was assassinated – Hached was able to report to a national congress of the UGTT, the progress the movement had made which included:
- the UGTT had grown to embrace 120,000 workers throughout the country
- it had led an organized and disciplined grass roots movement against the French Occupation
- The Union had won for Tunisian society as a whole a number of civil rights and constitutional guarantees from the French colonial administration
- the UGTT had achieved international recognition by its adhesion to the ICFTU of which Hached had been elected to its executive board
- The creation of the UGTT had encouraged, with Hached’s personal encouragement other North African nations under colonial domination (Morocco and Algeria under French domination, Libya ruled by the Italians) to create their own trade union movements independent of their colonial overseers.
The UGTT had developed its own economic and social vision, civil rights goals that were embraced by the nationalist movement that could provide direction to the nation after independence.
The French Repress the Tunisian Independence Movement
In 1952, hoping to gain a quick independence, the Tunisian national movement opened negotiations with the French government. The negotiations failed and were almost immediately followed by a harsh wave of repression against the movement. The French colonial government in Tunis engaged in a full scale press to break the back of the independence movement in one fell swoop. Most of the leadership of the independence movement, including Habib Bourguiba, were arrested. One who escaped arrest, Saleh Ben Youssef, went off to New York to plead Tunisia’s case before the United Nations. A curfew was imposed; all political activity was banned; mass arrests were carried out by the French foreign legion.
It was at this moment of full crisis, with the nationalist movement reeling from the repression, that the UGTT stepped forward, picked up the pieces and assumed the leadership of both the political and armed resistance (there was some) against the French authorities. In so doing, it was the trade union movement in general, and its talented leader Farhat Hached that saved the independence movement from collapse. In face of the wave of repression – and French Colonialism could, when it felt obliged – reveal its fangs in the nastiest of fashions – it was Tunisian trade unionists – its working class – that stood fast, held their ground and continued the struggle for independence as they say `on all fronts’.
And for that they paid a price, a terrible price, one hardly acknowledged outside the country. 20,000 trade unionists were arrested and placed in prison and concentration camps, knowing they would face what the French in North Africa excelled at: abuse, torture of an exceedingly refined kind, possible death. Of the 20,000 arrested, 9 were condemned to death and executed, 12 condemned to life imprisonment of forced labor, with many others receiving heavy jail sentences In protest demonstrations hundreds were killed and wounded. In a letter that Hached wrote just before his own assassination to the secretary general Oldenbroek of the ICFTU, the Tunisia trade union leader comments, `Let us add (to the repression noted above) the 50 assassination attempts against Tunisian militants organized by Le Main Rouge (The Red Hand), French colonial paramilitary terrorist group. 5 Others, when released from concentration camps (imagine – only seven years after the defeat of Hitler the French were establishing concentration camps in Tunisia!) were denied employment.
France, the cauldron of the Revolution of 1789, with a vengeance second to none, turned on the calls of independence from its colonies in the aftermath of World War II and tried to crush them with whatever force necessary. Nor was it only in Tunisia. In Madagascar, Indochina and a few years later, in Tunisia’s western neighbor, Algeria, France would prove, that in its colonies it was capable of war crimes approaching genocide. However brutal was the US wars against Vietnam and more recently Iraq, one can say that Washington honed its skills watching how the French with impunity tried to crush the independence movements of its North African colonies. It is not a pretty story.
Hached’s Last Year
In any case, as French colonial repression intensified in Tunisia in an attempt to break the back of the labor led independence movement, Hached, always the busy bee, had not skipped a beat. He was traveling to Brussels, New York, Washington DC, pleading the case of Tunisian (and Moroccan) independence to the UN Security Council and to European and American political leaders. His international activities bore fruit, forcing the French, for the umpteenth time, to present a `reform program’ for Tunisia to which Hached hoped to open a national dialogue in response.
As can be seen from this brief description, Hached was a force to be reckoned with, `a dangerous man’ according to French Resident General Jean de Hauteclocque, not easily discarded because of his solid base in the labor movement. Through his efforts to mobilize the UGTT and his own strategic political genius, he had – far more than Habib Bourguiba – he had intensified the Tunisian independence movement, which France had strongly resisted, to a point where it had become irreversible. While armed struggle was a part of the strategy, it was, in truth, a minor element in the movement’s tool kit. Furthermore he had achieved something else – the creation of a united front crossing class, clan lines – which brought together into one powerful movement, the diverse tendencies within the country.
On some levels at least, Hached was `the glue’ that kept it all together and as a result, he became not `a’ target, but `the target’ of the French colonial authorities. He symbolized the danger French colonialism was facing, not only in Tunisia but in the rest of French North Africa as well. Unable to do what French (and other) colonial regimes excel at – divide and rule – and facing a united Tunisian people calling for independence, the French insisted all the same on exacting a price for Tunisian independence. On December 5, 1952 in the Rades suburb south of Tunis – long its working class, radicalized district, Farhat Hached, at the young age of 38, was murdered.
Planning Hached’s Murder
Although the French government has refused, even at this late date, to release its documentation of Hached’s assassination, still the main outlines of the killing have already been made public in a number of journalistic accounts, documentaries and memoirs.
Starting two months prior to December 5, Hached’s fate began to be carefully discussed at the level of the French authorities in Tunis, in consultation with Paris. It was all pre-meditated. Should he be exiled from Tunisia, imprisoned, `eliminated’? From this time until his death Hached’s every move was watched; it was 24 hour surveillance. His family was harassed and his house bombed on at least one occasion. He also began to receive a growing number of death threats. Several came in the form of threatening letters to his home. A red hand, in lieu of a signature ended the letters.
Taking out Hached was not done subtly.. It was discussed in French colonial circles, for all practical purposes, literally `announced’ in the press, and carried out for the world to see. To give an idea of how blatant the threats got, a week before December 5, French colonial newspapers in Tunis but also in Casablanca and Algers publicly called for his elimination. One such piece appeared in the Tunis-based North African weekly Paris. In its November 28, 1952 issue, one Camille Aymard urged that Hached be taken out (the french- it suggested `a frapper Farhat Hached a la tete’. 6 The article goes on to add the act needs to be done immediately, and that until it is completed `duty’ would not be fulfilled. Rather like the announcements – that used to be so common in southern newspapers – of an upcoming lynching.
And so it was that on the morning of December 5, 1952 two cars followed Hached’s car as he was leaving home. The first pulled alongside his and opened up with machine gun fire mortally wounding the trade union leader. Then the second pulled up, noticing that he was still alive and finished him off with a shot to the head. Dragged from the car, his head was battered beyond recognition (this according to reports in the US press at the time). His body was then taken and dumped a short ways down the road. His death was announced shortly afterwards on French radio.
`The Most Powerful Labor Organization in the Arab World…’
In Tunisia itself, a three day general strike was called to protest Hached’s murder. Six Tunisian labor leaders were thrown into an internment camp `to forestall a general outbreak of violence’ among them Mohammed Messadi, successor to Hached in the top labor position. An article in the Times-News of North Carolina described the union movement in Tunisia that Hached had headed up as `the most powerful labor organization in the Arab world’. As a sign of their commitment to their trade union leader, the strike was 100% effective in the mines and among dockworkers, both of which Hached had helped organize. Two people were killed by the French authorities protesting. In Tunis’ Arab quarter, groups of youth overturned automobiles. In the village of Hama, near Gabes, some 300 miles south of Tunis `terrorists’ fired at a police station. A distraught 12 year old shepherd boy, unfamiliar with weaponry was killed when a grenade he was about to throw went off in his hands.
Hached’s murder triggered echoes far beyond Tunisia. Immediately after the announcement, spontaneous protest demonstrations broke out in Casablanca, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Karachi, Jakarta, Brussels, Milan, and Stockholm. In Casablanca the confrontation turned violent and the French colonial authorities fired on the crowd killing 40 and wounding many more.
Hached’s File Closed in 1955
The French government’s `Hached File’ was closed in 1955 without having reached any decision as to those responsible. In the period immediately following the assassination the same press that had called for his elimination spun a whole series of different scenarios as to whom was behind the killing. Some versions implicated Habib Bourguiba, others the Communists from whom Hached had split but the most convincing version is that he was a victim of the French colonial authorities in coordination with the local police and colonial extremists. The current official French version is that Hached was killed by colonial extremists – an explanation which gently lets the French government off the hook.
In response to a request by Hached’s widow and one of his sons, the French government still refuses to release the documentation it has on Hached’s assassination; supposedly the documents will be made public, it has been state recently in 2016. According to French Magrebian historian, Juliette Bessis, Hached’s fate was organized and sealed at the highest levels of the French government that included the cooperation of the French Army, major political figures and the police’. According to one Jean Baklouti, former official in the `Direction de la Surveillance de Territoire’ – the French intelligence agency in Tunisia – the actual killing was carried out by a paramilitary colonial organization called `La Main Rouge’ (The Red Hand), a somewhat shady circle of French police and colonial political leaders put together by the French intelligence services.
A recent documentary on Hached done by Al Jazeera Documentary Channel interviewed Antoine Melero, former French intelligence agent and admitted member of The Red Hand. In an interview aired recently he repeated the claim he made in his 1997 memoir La Main Rouge: L’armee Secrete de la Republique (The Red Hand: the [French]Republic’s Secret Army) that The Red Hand was responsible in part for Hached’s assassination. Melero claimed that the Red Hand had received the order to do so by the French government. `Hached’s assassination was definitely committee by La Main Rouge in agreement with the French government officials in Tunisia.’ Melero admitted to Al Jazeera. For emphasis he added, `I believe what I did was legitimate and I would do it again if I had to’. 7 Melero contends that Bourguiba was informed and knew about the assassination, that it was in preparation for France granting Tunisia independence but wanting to hand power over to Bourguiba, not Hached.
1. Note: Why write about Tunisia? About events that took place nearly 60 years ago that seem so remote both to the US and to Colorado? Perhaps they are remote, but not to me. And even if they are remote, they are instructive, filled with all the hope and agony that has marked the past century and the one we are so poorly entering. Many weapons systems and wars against the Third World ago, I spent 2 years and some months in Tunisia in those globally explosive years – 1966-68. Much was happening in the world (the war in Vietnam continued to grow, the civil rights and anti-war movements in the USA, the assassinations – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy – the June 1967 Middle East War, the explosion of radical student movements in the USA, UK, France in May of 1968, the Prague Spring, the murder of hundreds of Mexican students in 1968, and in Tunisia itself a country emerging from its colonial past, seeking its place in the sun as an independent Arab – and it is often forgotten African nation.
Those were the formative years of my life. So much was happening in the world, around me,…so little of which I could in those days absorb or understand. I have long since felt a great debt of appreciation to Tunisia and the Tunisian people. I haven’t gone back. Nancy and I almost did. While living in Finland it looked like we were able to go on a classic European junket vacation to Tunisia, but it fell through and we went to Crete (an incredible 10 days) instead. That is as close as I have gotten geographically to the place although a number of times, sitting in cafes in Salonika, Barcelona or Beirut I’d look out across the Mediterranean and think of Tunisia. I still do, through life long friendships and acquaintances with others with whom I shared the Tunisian Peace Corps experience, and when I can through my teaching and writing.
2. I passed up a chance to visit the islands one weekend in Sfax in 1967 when I was visiting Peace Corps friends and have regretted it ever since.
3. The Confederation Generale de Travail – CGT – still active after all these years is France’s left-wing union movement that has always had from its outset until today a relationship with the French Communist Party.
4. Like Hached, Hadj cut his teeth politically within the circle of the French Communist Party – although organizing Algerian workers within metropolitan France, not Algeria but had to break loose of its confines and go out `on his own’ – which Hadj did just as decisively as Hached would later. Hadj formed L’Etoile Nord-Africain - a movement for North African (primarily Algerian, but including some Tunisians and Moroccans) workers in France and was among the earliest to call for a break with France, full independence. Like Hached, Hadj’s contribution was eclipsed by the formation of the National Liberation Front with whom he had political differences. It is only recently that his name has been rehabilitated in Algeria
5. Noura Boursali. ‘L’assassinat de Farhat Hached ou Le crime impuni’. at http://www.harissa.com/D_Histoire/farhathached.htm
6. The French reads: « Avec Ferhat Hached et Bourguiba, nous vous avons présenté deux des principaux coupables. Nous en démasquerons d’autres, s’il est nécessaire, tous les autres, si haut placés soient-ils. Il faut, en effet, en finir avec ce jeu ridicule qui consiste à ne parler que des exécutants, à ne châtier que les « lampistes » du crime, alors que les vrais coupables sont connus et que leurs noms sont sur toutes les lèvres. Oui, il faut en finir, car il y va de la vie des Français, de l’honneur et du prestige de la France. « Si un homme menace de te tuer, frappe-le à la tête » dit un proverbe syrien. C’est là qu’il faut frapper aujourd’hui. Tant que vous n’aurez pas accomplice geste viril, ce geste libérateur, vous n’aurez pas rempli votre devoir et, devant Dieu qui vous regarde, le sang des innocents retombera sur vous ». The quote appeared just after Hached’s death in L’Obervateur No.135. 11 December, 1052