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Geographies of Power: The Tunisian Civic Order, Jurisdictional Politics, and Imperial Rivalry in the Mediterranean, 1881–1935

Lewis, Mary Dewhurst. "Geographies of Power: The Tunisian Civic Order, Jurisdictional Politics, and Imperial Rivalry in the Mediterranean, 1881–1935." Journal of Modern History 80:4 (December 2008): 791–830.

In a letter dated November 1883, Paul Cambon, the resident minister of France's protectorate of Tunisia, confided to his wife that “if the Capitulations aren't suppressed, we'll find ourselves backed into a corner [nous voilà acculés].” These Capitulations—similar to legal arrangements prevailing in the Ottoman Empire, of which Tunisia had been a semiautonomous province until the French conquest in 1881—granted a number of legal immunities to foreign nationals and holders of foreign “patents of protection.” Why would the senior administrator of France's new protectorate worry about the legal status of nationals belonging to the rival states it had outmaneuvered to win Tunisia? After all, France had just signed a treaty promising to protect the Tunisian bey's dynasty in exchange for the right to “occupy all areas deemed necessary for the reestablishment of order and security of both borders and coastline." The treaty seemed to settle the question of which European state controlled Tunisia. Instead, I will argue, it marked the beginning of a new phase of imperial rivalry, as European powers found novel ways to compete for influence in the protectorate by exploiting fissures in the rule of law. In turn, individuals in Tunisia sought to exercise power over their everyday lives by doing the same, playing the protectorate's multiple jurisdictions off each other to settle quotidian social conflict. These two forms of power struggle did not merely overlap; they were intertwined. Local disputes—between the administration and taxpayers, creditors and debtors, or husbands and wives, among others—exposed and exacerbated divisions between European states.

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