Nation-buiding across transnational boundaries: the construction of a national identity among the Italians living in French Tunisia.

By Gabriele Montalbano
Submitted to Session P4856 (Mediterranean Crossings and Tunisian Settlements, 1860-2017, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
During the colonial period, Tunisian society was composed by different cultures, religions and nationalities, an aspect quite common in all Mediterranean basin. Among the biggest foreign communities who lived in the French protectorate of Tunisia, there were the Greeks, the Maltese and the Italians who largely outnumbered the French community until 1930s. Colonial policy wanted to put all Europeans exclusively under French rule through naturalization. Nevertheless, in 1896 new Conventions were made between France and Italy that guaranteed Italian citizenship to all children born in the Regency from Italian parents (or, at least, from Italian father). Furthermore, thanks to these Conventions, Italians schools, associations, banks and hospitals could continue their activities. This web of Italian national institutions formed a kind of State within the State protected by international laws. The composition of the Italian presence in Tunisia was diversified from a social, religious and regional point of view. An upper-class élite composed mainly by Jews from Leghorn managed the national associations and institutions, that were the bones of the community. On the other side, the lower and working class came from Sicily, Sardinia, and Southern Italy and formed the first trade unions in modern Tunisia. In this paper I'll try to focus on the relations between the upper-class and the working-class, and how national identity and its construction was used in order to build a well-defined collective group. The interest is to analyze and to understand the practices of a cultural and social hegemony inside an emigrant community in a colonial context. Individual and collective strategies managed the national identity to specific interests. However, it cannot underestimate the importance of the France-Italy diplomatic relations, Italian colonial wars and nationalist rhetoric in this community building process. Internal and external factors contributed in defining a national feeling for Italian migrants in French Tunisia.