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The Amilcar Notes -10 …Remembering Farhat Hached: An Afternoon with `We Love Kerkennah’

December 30, 2011

`We Love Kerkennah’ participants at Farah Hached’s mausoleum. photo credit: `We Love Kerhennah!`

1. We Love Kerkennah!

It was December 4. The next day, December 5, would mark the 59th anniversary of the assassination of Farhad Hached, founder of the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) – the national Tunisian trade union movement. Nationwide commemorative activities were planned to mark the occasion. On December 5, 1952, Hached was gunned down by a French paramilitary hit squad called La Main Rouge (The Red Hand).

Fifty nine years after his murder, Farhat Hached remains nothing short of a much loved national Tunisian hero of the anti-colonial movement. Hached was one of the least factional figures of his day during a period when factionalism was rife.

His eyes were always `on the prize’ – independence from France, although he never lived to see the end of the French Protectorate in Tunisia that he helped to discredit and ultimately defeat. While time – and historical revelations – have tended to puncture the halos atop the heads of many of the country’s nationalist icons, Hached’s contribution and reputation remain in tact. Hached’s family along with several French human rights groups are suing the French government both for an apology and for the release of classified government documents related to the case.

Walking down Ave Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, I notice a group of twenty or so young Tunisians. Laughing, joking with each other, they were switching from Arabic to French to Arabic as is common in Tunisia. I recognized the photo of Farhat Hached on t-shirts some of them are wearing. Hached’s image stops me dead in my tracks. I have written about him and intend to do so in considerably more detail. One of the goals of this Tunisia trip is to make contact with his family. I stop and inquire…are they a group somehow connected with Hached, and if so…`qu’est ce que c’est’ (what’s the deal?).

Yes, indeed. They all originate from the Kerkennah Islands twelve miles off of the Tunisian coast near Sfax, from where Hached was born and raised. They were on their way to the Farhat Hached mausoleum just south of Tunisia’s medina to pay homage to Hached and on the spot, invited me to join them, which I did. I felt like I had just `struck gold’.

Kerkennah is poor fishing community of some 14,000 inhabitants that has seen very little development over the years. While the main activities commemorating Hached, national in scope, would transpire the next day, the Kerkennites had arranged their own special mini pilgrimage.

Essentially `a periphery of the periphery’, abject poverty has resulted in an unending stream of emigration of the islands’ youth out on to the mainland in search of work, economic opportunity. `Kerkennites’ retain a strong sense of identity and a sentimental attachment to the islands wherever they may be throughout Tunisia . They form clubs, support organizations, remain in contact socially and often return to `the source’ frequently. I had run into one of these groups, `We Love Kerkennah’.

Jamila Chaari laying a wreathe on her father’s coffin

2. Jamila Chaari – a toddler when her father was gunned down

Farhad Hached Mausoleum is an imposing structure, built by Zine Ben Ali early in his rule when he was trying to woe Tunisia’s labor movement. Still, the impression that Ben Ali was `pro-labor’ is deceptive. During his twenty five year rule, wage suppression – enforced by policies of extreme repression – drove even those Tunisians with jobs into greater poverty. Low wages combined with classic `structural adjustment take-ways’ were among the key contributing factors to the revolt which overthrew Ben Ali and forced him and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, to flee the country on January 14, 2011.

The ceremony at the Hached’s mausoleum is short but tasteful. Flowers are placed on his grave. Hached’s daughter, Jamila Chaari, is present and makes some remarks in Arabic. To my surprise, I am asked to say something and am able to mumble out a few words of appreciation. Jamila was just a toddler when her father was assassinated; she and her siblings have tried their whole lives to get to the bottom of their father’s assassination.

After the ceremony, `We Love Kerkennah’ descended `en masse’ to a tea room in the midst of Tunisia’s souk for song, discuission and tea. They were kind enough to invite me along. To sit with tem for an hour was one of the more precious moments of the Tunisia trip. Like virtually all other Tunisians I met during my three and a half week stay, the Kerkennites felt a sense of pride – of a new rekindled nationalism – that Tunisia had rid itself of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans who had done so much damage to the country’s body and soul

While the discussions were wide ranging and informal, from Farhad Hached’s Kerkennah origins to the current new Tunisian political situation, much of it focused on the Kerkennah’s, on ideas for its economic development that included possible projects for tourism development, creating bio-fuel from seaweed. They discussed how the club might influence Tunisia’s interim government to pay more attention and invest in the islands, long ignored by Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him. The islands contain a rich archeological heritage as well going back to Phonecian times (1500 BC) that have hardly been excavated or probed (but then that is true for all of Tunisia – which has one of the richest and longest archeological histories of any country anywhere).

`We Love Kerkennah’ members having tea in the souk, talking about Farhat Hached and the future of the country and the Kerkennah’s. (photo credit: `We Love Kerkennah!’

3. `La Main Rouge’ assassinates Hached …

On December 5, 1952, on the road to Rades,Farhad Hached was gunned down by a French para-military hit squad called La Main Rouge (The Red Hand’) in a operation which all signs suggest was run by the French resident, Jean de Hautecloque, a hard line French colonial administrator, sent to Tunisia to break the back of the growing pro-independence movement.

The murder took place in two stages. A car came along side of his and two gunmen on the passenger side opened fired, severely wounding him and drove off. Hached was able to get out of his car alive. A second car stopped by him. Several gunmen got out and finished Hached off with bullets to the brain. Hached left a devastated 22 year old wife and four young children: the oldest Nour-eddine was eight; the youngest Samira only eight months old.

According to an account in a recently published biography of Mahmoud El Materi, one of the founders of Tunisia’s Neo-Destour – `New Constitutional’ Party, (Mahmoud El Materi: Pionnier de la Tunisie Moderne by Anissa El Materi Hached. Sud Editions, Tunis: 2011), Hached’s assassination provoked angry demonstrations far and wide. Trade unionists in Casablanca, in a number of Algerian cities and elsewhere throughout the world demonstrated for over a week following the assassination. A street in Casablanca bears his name as do numerous schools, hospitals and streets throughout Tunisia.

Other `Red Hand’ assassinations of Tunisian nationalist leaders followed: Hedi Chaker, head of the Neo-Destourian Party in Sfax was also killed as was Chadly Kastalli, vice president of the Tunis Municipality and close to the pro-nationalist Moncef Bey. But none of these assassinations achieved their goal of derailing the nationalist movement and utterly destroying the UGTT. To the contrary, in the aftermath of Hached’s death, the movement for national independence from French colonial domination stiffened.

Volume 1 of the two volume biography of Farhat Hached by Ahmed Khaled. Editions Zakharef: 2007

4. The Man From Kerkennah

Farhad Hached, was born on Kerkennah in 1914. 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.

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, Hached, 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).

Poster announcing the Congress of the UGTT; which was just completed (Dec. 26028, 2011) in Tunis

5. Hached becomes secretary general of the UGTT at the age of 30

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. At the time there were two main international trade union federations. Besides the ICFTU there existed the Moscow leaning World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). During much of the Cold War the two confederations were in competition with each other, splitting the international working class movement down the middle and weakening the impact of both.

That the radical Hached would choose to lead the Tunisian trade union movement into the U.S. dominated ICFTU rather than the WFTU is interesting. He wanted to steer the Tunisian trade unions away from the WFTU where the CGT retained considerable influence and in so doing limiting the influence of French colonialism on the Tunisian labor movement. Along similar lines, the leadership of the Tunisian nationalist movement, and Habib Bourguiba in particular, tried to develop good relations with the United States, both because the Tunisians understood that the United States was the emerging global hegemonic power and also to create a kind of wedge that would permit the Tunisians to play the Americans off against the French.

In a few short years Hached 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 participation, 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.

Decorated villa entrance – Amilcar, Tunisia

6. 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. 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 the 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.

The resistance largely organized by Hached and the UGTT in that crucial year of 1952, in many ways, broke the back of French colonialism and set the stage for talks between France and the Tunisian national movement that would, four short years later, result in independence, an independence that Farhat Hached never lived to see.

But it is not for nothing that 59 years later, through all of Tunisia’s years as an independent country, through the Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s years, that it has been impossible to snuff out the memory of Farhat Hached. He’s too much a part of his country’s history. Farhat Hached, son of a fisherman from the Kerkennah islands, 12 miles off the coast of Sfax a poor island chain, `the periphery of the periphery’. He made history. Next year, on December 5, 2012 will mark the sixtieth anniversary of his assassination. I expect the commemoration next year will be even larger than this year’s gathering (the official one was rather large). My body permitting (we’ll see), I hope to be in attendance.



Farhat Hached and the Struggle for Tunisian Independence (note – there is some overlapping with the current entry above…but mostly different material)

The Amilcar Notes 1 – Zine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy: Repression, Torture and Death

The Amilcar Notes 2 – Tunisia: Emerging Democracy or Just Frills?

The Amilcar Notes 3 – Tunisia: The Forgotten Socio-economic Crisis

The Amilcar Notes 4 – Tunisia and the New Islamic Politics

The Amilcar Notes 5 – The Tunisian-U.S. Experiment: New Directions in Foreign Policy?

The Amilcar Notes 6 – Tunisian Installs a New Government: The Constituent Assembly

The Amilcar Notes 7 – Tunisia’s Jews – `Then’ and `Now’

The Amilcar Notes 8 – Tunisia’s Jews – `Then’ and `Now’ – Part Two

The Amilcar Notes 9  – Little Country, Big U.S. Embassy: Tunisia’s Place in the U.S. North Africa Strategy

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