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Béchir Ben Yahmed: Witness to an African century

By Dominique Mataillet, Olivier Marbot
Posted on Tuesday, 4 May 2021 23:14, updated on Thursday, 6 May 2021 10:34

Béchir Ben Yahmed in his office at Jeune Afrique, in Paris, 2010 © Bruno Lévy / JA

Founder of 'Jeune Afrique' and 'La Revue', observer and committed editorialist, Béchir Ben Yahmed was a privileged witness of all the upheavals in Africa and the Middle East throughout the 20th century. He passed away on 3 May 2021 in Paris.

For the past 10 years, Béchir Ben Yahmed (BBY) worked on his memoirs, having given into his usual perfectionistic tendencies and perpetual dissatisfaction. It was only recently that BBY was willing to ease up a little on it. But to put on paper the way he saw himself was a rare and undoubtedly difficult exercise for him.

He described himself as a journalist, a businessman, a man of the left. Not unaware that some said he was stubborn, but rather “persevering”, as he corrected them. Authoritarian? “It’s a legend,” he said, before explaining that in his youth he had been “sickly shy” and that this character trait perhaps explained his sometimes abrupt approach.

Béchir Ben Yahmed, in his office at Jeune Afrique, in 2007. © Vincent Fournier/JA

He came from a generation of young pro-independence activists and followed a different path from most of his comrades, but he said he had no regrets about it. “Of all my peers, these future high officials of the emerging Third World, none followed the route I took,” he wrote. “Most have been ministers, international civil servants, prime ministers, sometimes even heads of state. ”

Minister at 28 years old

Jeune Afrique, he said, had been his life’s work. Many, who knew him as a member of the first government of Tunisia’s Henri Bourguiba, were surprised decades later to learn that he did not follow that path and asked “what happened” for the young and promising minister to turn his back on politics.

‘Jeune Afrique’ came to represent a form of collective consciousness of an entire continent, which the international press had difficulty understanding. A demanding role, impossible to hold. And yet, the challenge has not only been met, but achieved. — Hervé Bourges, the former head of French broadcasting

BBY replied without hesitation: “I did not want it. Because there is a price to pay, which I refuse to pay. I don’t want to do what politicians do to get votes: beg, make sacrifices, compromise. I am incapable of that.”

Habib Bourguiba, President of the Tunisian Republic, Béchir Ben Yahmed, Minister of Information (with sunglasses) and Ahmed Mestiri, Minister of Finance on 25 July 25, 1957 in Tunis.

Béchir Ben Yahmed was therefore, for more than six decades, first, a journalist and then also a press boss. “A great boss of the press,” insisted Hervé Bourges, the former head of French broadcasting, in a chapter of his Dictionnaire Amoureux de l’Afrique. “He was the first in Africa to exercise this noble profession,” continued the television man who died in 2020.

Bourges continued: “The confidant, the daily interlocutor, the partner [to the leaders of the continent] in this construction of the new African expression. Of course, they sometimes banned his newspaper, then they allowed it again, they fell out with him, they loved him or hated him. They have always valued him.”

Jeune Afrique,” concluded Bourges, “came to represent a form of collective consciousness of an entire continent, which the international press had difficulty understanding. A demanding role, impossible to hold. And yet, the challenge has not only been met, but achieved.”

From Djerba island to Tunis

The story of the man whose name would become inseparable from the title Jeune Afrique began in Djerba, in southern Tunisia. Béchir Ben Yahmed was born there on 2 April 1928. His parents, Amor and Slima, had a dozen children. Only five survived: four boys and one girl. The eldest, Sadok, was born in 1915. He was followed by Othman and Brahim, then, in 1923, by Temna. Béchir is the youngest.

This island does not have many resources, and many people left to earn a living elsewhere. BBY’s father went to continental Tunisia to work as a trader, which is second nature for many Djerbiens. He was successful through hard work and his strong business sense – traits that Béchir and his brothers inherited. In time, Amor became a wealthy merchant.

Nevertheless, his father remained thrifty, and his family was forced to live a frugal life. Those who remember the late Moufida Tlatli’s film The Season of Men can imagine what daily life was like for those families whose patriarchal head returned to the island only once a year.

Sadiki college in Tunis, in 1961. © Studio Kahia

In his family’s village of Mahboubine, Béchir lived in a world surrounded by women, with his mother, his aunts and his sisters-in-law. BBY spoke of Sadok as his “second father”, and he was present and attentive. But it was with his sister, five years his senior, whom he was closest. That closeness endured right up until Temna’s death in 2017. Béchir took care of her, from her marriage at an early age to when she was widowed early, as well as her children.

Under colonisation, as BBY recounts in his memoirs, many boys went to school to obtain a primary school certificate as a means to escape conscription. At the age of 15 or 16, many of them married and became grocers. Young Béchir was tempted to follow this path to earn a living and become independent. Already, the young boy had ideas about becoming an entrepreneur. But his father and brothers forced him to continue with his studies.

And so, at barely 11 years old, he skipped ahead a few years of school, and left Djerba for the capital to take the entrance exam to the famous Sadiki College. When he entered the school in September 1939, he was one of the hundred or so students educated in French and Arabic each year, ready to go on to university or the grandes écoles [elite schools].

In his memoirs, BBY recounts in great detail what daily life was like in the capital on the eve of the Second World War. Between the French and the Tunisians, segregation was palpable – an apartheid that existed without a name. After the war, when the wind of decolonisation blew, he remembered this division.

Neo-Destour supporter

The war, however, was the time when Neo-Destour, the independence party of which Habib Bourguiba was one of the founders, came to the surface. The young Béchir soon began to visit the party’s headquarters, located in Bourguiba’s law office.

Habib Bourguiba, back, in the garden of the castle of La Ferté in Amilly where he was under house arrest since July 1954, with from left to right, Mohamed Masmoudi, head of the French section of Neo-Destour and Béchir Ben Yahmed in Amilly, France, July 1954.

At the time, neither he nor his college friends imagined overturning the established order. BBY was never a fanatic. He was content with the work of a grassroots activist, writing and copying leaflets, filing cards. Nevertheless, he became familiar with Mongi Slim, the director of the party, coming into contact from time to time with Salah Ben Youssef, the secretary general.

At Sadiki, people followed the war from afar. Some thought that Hitler would liberate the country from colonialism. Like Bourguiba, the young Ben Yahmed argued that the Germans would lose the war, and that it was not in the interest of Tunisians to align themselves with the Third Reich.

At the end of 1942, war broke out in the Maghreb. During Operation Torch, the Allied forces landed in Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. The Germans had invaded Tunisia, and with that the students of Sadiki College were sent back to their parents.

For Tunisians, the war ended in May 1943 with the defeat of the Afrika Korps. Béchir and his friends returned to school in September.

With Bourguiba’s return to the country, the independence movement regained strength. When Béchir left Sadiki, in 1947, at the age of 19, he was, as he said himself, “a nationalist, a Bourguibist before his time, and an anti-colonialist”.

It was in this state of mind that he left for Paris to “learn” from the colonisers. In truth, this choice was not really his. His father and his older brother, Sadok, had decided this for him: “Béchir will attend HEC and will go into commerce, like any good Djerbian, or become even a banker, why not?” History would later show that they were both right and wrong. Even if, at the time, the young man dreamed of being a surgeon, he knew that studying in France was an extraordinary opportunity.

Passionate about cinema

In Paris, he was not too disoriented, as he met many compatriots who helped him discover the city. After staying in a cheap hotel on Rue des Ecoles, in the Latin Quarter, he moved to Rue du Mont-Dore, not far from his preparatory school on Rue Legendre. The curriculum did not interest him much, so he spent his days at the movies. Luck smiled on him: during the entrance exam to HEC, the subject of general culture, which had the highest weighting, was about cinema.

As for his relations with French people, his contacts were few and far between. Many North Africans lived among themselves and met regularly at 115 boulevard Saint-Michel, headquarters of the Association des Etudiants Musulmans Nord-Africains. It was here that BBY met Mehdi Ben Barka, Abderrahim Bouabid, M’Hamed Yazid and many other future great decolonisation activists.

France, however, refused to give rights to the colonised people demanding as much. To the Tunisians who called for a return to internal autonomy as guaranteed by the Bardo treaty, Paris responded with increased repression.

On 6 December 1952, Béchir Ben Yahmed’s fate changed. With his HEC diploma in hand, he was recruited by the French and Italian Bank for South America, better known as Sudameris, and sent to Vicenza, near Venice, to learn Italian and the finance business.

One evening, while opening Le Monde, which he read as his sole link back to Tunisia and France, he learnt that the day before, the trade union leader Ferhat Hached had been assassinated by members of the Main Rouge, the Tunisian precursor of the Algerian Organisation de l’Armée Secrète. BBY immediately sent his letter of resignation to the Parisian management of Sudameris.

“Did I have the right to withdraw from the struggle of my country for its independence?,” he noted in his memoirs. The next morning, he boarded the first train to Paris. There, he contacted Mohamed Masmoudi, representative of the Neo-Destour political bureau in France, and offered his help. It was easier to accept this offer of service because it was free of charge.

Masmoudi immediately put him in charge of relations with Bourguiba, whom the French had placed in total isolation in La Galite, an archipelago in northern Tunisia.

Turning point at Diên Biên Phu

The year 1953 was therefore the year of his political apprenticeship. In regular contact with Bourguiba, at least by letter, the young and well-educated man informed the Neo-Destour leader about the activities of his party in France and received his directives.

One day, Masmoudi asked Béchir to collect Bourguiba’s letters in order to make a book. The book, very well designed, was published in early 1954 by Julliard, and was riddled with typos, which irritated Bourguiba to no end.

BBY nevertheless got a taste for publishing. He also got his start in journalism: from Paris, he began to send articles to Petit Matin, one of the three French dailies in Tunisia. To his great surprise, they were published on the front page, signed with the pseudonym he had chosen: Arthur Jeff.

The battle of Diên Biên Phu (now northern Vietnam), in May 1954, marked a major new turning point. For the first time, a colonial power was militarily defeated by a guerrilla army. As important as it was, this event did not change the strategy of Bourguiba, who had meanwhile been transferred to the island of Groix in Brittany. For him, the war remained a secondary means of pressure, which should not take precedence over political action.

BBY finally met Bourguiba in June 1954. Since this first meeting and until 1973 – the date of their last contact – the first Tunisian president treated Ben Yahmed like a son; even better than his own biological son, Habib Junior.

The “supreme fighter” appreciated BBY’s seriousness, insight and diligent work. Until the end of his life, BBY would write only in green ink, the colour Bourguiba used to make his mark and which he adopted.

Relations between France and Tunisia changed radically with the arrival of Pierre Mendès as the head of the French government. In June 1954, the President of the Council asked Masmoudi and Ben Yahmed to pass on a proposal to Bourguiba: Would Neo-Destour agree to participate in a government in which it would be a minority? Bourguiba agreed unreservedly, paving the way for the formation, under the leadership of Tahar Ben Ammar, of the first fully Tunisian government since 1881.

From autonomy to independence

Shortly thereafter, Bourguiba was transferred to Amilly, 120km south of Paris. BBY was given a new mission: look after the Neo-Destour leader and accompany him from this town to Paris. Certainly, the fact that he had a car, a rare privilege at the time – a Peugeot 203 gifted by his brother Brahim – counted. But, above all, he knew how to win Bourguiba’s trust and affection.

As preparations for negotiations on internal autonomy accelerated, Masmoudi asked Ben Yahmed, then in his final year at Sciences-Po, to be both his chief of staff and the spokesman for the Tunisian delegation. The discussions on autonomy dragged on.

BBY finally resigned from his position and returned to Tunis in March 1955. He had a project in mind: the creation of a newspaper. For him, Tunisia needed a media that would mobilise the population in favour of Neo-Destour’s policies. A bit like Le Monde after the Second World War: close to power without being subservient.

First edition of ‘L’Action’ on 25 April 1955 © Archives Jeune Afrique

He set up L’Action which, contrary to what many think, was neither the newspaper of Bourguiba nor that of his party, but completely that of Béchir Ben Yahmed. His brothers, once again, helped him financially, he did the rest. Renting offices on Rue d’Al-Jazira in the centre of Tunis, he set about preparing the first issue.

He already had the front page subject in mind: a major international event was coming up. The Bandung conference was due to start on 18 April in Indonesia. It would mark the entry into the international scene of countries eventually known as belonging to the Third World.

But on 30 April, the news of the signing in Paris of the agreements on the internal autonomy of Tunisia broke. Too bad for India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was supposed to be on the cover: he was replaced at the last moment by Bourguiba.

At the request of the latter, Ben Yahmed returned to France to make the crossing with him aboard the Ville d’Alger, on which the nationalist leader disembarked triumphantly at La Goulette on 1 June 1955.

In less than a year, Tunisia went from internal autonomy to independence, proclaimed on 20 March 1956. Béchir Ben Yahmed was at the print shop, where he was wrapping up an issue of L’Action, when “Si Lahbib” [Bourguiba] called him to ask him to come to the Kasbah, the seat of government.

There, he announced that he was appointing him information minister. Although BBY tried to decline the appointment, he found himself, at the age of 28, a member of the first government of independent Tunisia.

‘Bad quarrel’

His reluctance did not prevent him from taking his task seriously. “I have never worked as hard as I did during those 18 months,” he confided. Among his achievements included the creation of a film department, the launch of the first newsreel, and the opening of a school of journalism. Soon, however, he began to feel uncomfortable in this role.

Ministers were not involved in important decisions, and protocol weighed heavily on him. In addition, he faced hostility from other ministers who did not appreciate his close ties to Bourguiba.

Béchir Ben Yahmed (centre) between Habib Bourguiba (left), who just signed with France the agreement of internal autonomy and Mohamed Masmoudi.

However, it was a personal matter that led him to resign in September 1957. In a speech, the head of state made an indirect but highly derogatory reference to his brothers who, having bought forest areas in central Tunisia to turn into farmland, were accused of contributing to the deforestation of the country.

Bourguiba asked him to reconsider his decision, but it was in vain. The two men remained on good terms, Ben Yahmed even continued to write speeches for the Tunisian president until the early 1970s.

Having regained his freedom, BBY could now devote himself fully to L’Action. In March 1958, outraged by the indictment and arrest under a false pretext of Tahar Ben Ammar – the man who had signed the protocol for Tunisia’s independence in March 1956 – he wrote and published an article entitled “Mauvaise querelle” (Bad quarrel). Furious, Bourguiba demanded that all shareholders withdraw from L’Action. With a heavy heart, BBY decided to drop the newspaper.

For the next two years, he worked, without enthusiasm but with success, to do business, helped by a climate of the “Tunisification” of the economy, which allowed many to become very rich in a short time.

Among his main achievements was the construction of the Africa, a luxury hotel in the centre of Tunis. With Dutch investors, he also created a construction company, Sotrabat, which won several important contracts, such as the runway at El-Aouina airport and an esparto grass processing plant in Kasserine. He also participated in the creation of the Société Tunisienne de Banque, the first national bank.

More interesting for him was his foray into the sugar market. Having won a tender, he arrived to Cuba in April 1960 just a few months after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. There, he negotiated with Ernesto Che Guevara, governor of the Central Bank of Cuba, for the supply of 40,000tn of sugar.

However, the journalism bug did not leave him alone. On 17 October 1960, two years after the end of L’Action, he and a few friends, including Mohamed Ben Smaïl, who was already its editor-in-chief, launched Afrique Action, a newspaper that was completely independent of the Tunisian government and covered a much wider geographical area.

The newspaper was focused on the struggle of African and Arab people for independence. The war of liberation that was taking place in Algeria featured regularly. It was during this period that BBY began to learn more about sub-Saharan Africa during trips to Ghana, where he met Kwame Nkrumah, and to Congo, where he met Patrice Lumumba. Pan-Africanism would become one of the main threads of the new weekly.

As he has done throughout his career, BBY surrounded himself with talented collaborators. For example, Robert Namia did the mock-up, while François Poli focused on rewrites. Frantz Fanon, Kateb Yacine and many others wrote articles. His bachelor pad, in Gammarth, became the headquarters of revolutionary activists, especially for Algerian and foreign journalists.

Very quickly, he wanted the magazine to grow outside Tunis. He eventually opened an office in Paris, on Faubourg Saint Honoré, that was led by Jean Daniel. He was later succeeded by Robert Barrat and Paul-Marie de La Gorce.

Jeune Afrique is born

On 7 October 1961, Ben Yahmed wrote an editorial on “personal power” that provoked Bourguiba’s anger. The magazine was not banned, but the “supreme fighter” made it known that he considered himself the owner of the title L’Action.

The weekly was forced to change its title. Perplexed, BBY opted – without much conviction, he later confessed – to change it to Jeune Afrique. A name that would become famous and inevitably interchangeable with that of Béchir Ben Yahmed.

In 1962, the Algerian war was coming to an end. BBY believed that Tunis would lose its strategic interest. He spoke Italian and knew Italy, which also had reputable printers. So he chose to transfer Jeune Afrique to Rome. But very quickly, he and his team of about 10 people felt isolated. It was only in Tunis and Paris that they felt connected to Africa and the rest of the world.

In September 1964, after France’s interior minister Alain Peyrefitte lifted the ban on Jeune Afrique, BBY took the plunge. He transferred the editorial staff to Paris. A decisive step was the purchase of the premises on Avenue des Ternes, in the 17th arrondissement, in 1965. Jeune Afrique stayed there for a quarter of a century, where it lived many moments of glory.

The team was made up of Georges Henein, Guy Sitbon, Ibrahima Signaté, as well as Afif Ben Yedder, who managed accounts. Jean-Louis Gouraud joined in 1968. Coming from Rome was Aldo De Silva, who assisted Jean Lévy, a great art director who completely changed the layout.

The team soon put out a coloured cover for its weekly: the first French-speaking publication that focused on Africa. But the paper also included major topics from outside the continent, such as the Vietnam war and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Minister of Commerce, future president of Pakistan in 1971 is interviewed by Béchir Ben Yahmed, on October 1961, at the Hotel Georges V, Paris.

BBY was gifted in spotting talented journalists and committed to training them. For half a century, Jeune Afrique, under his leadership, was a training ground from which sprang many talented journalists who went on to join other notable magazines, mainly in Paris.

Meeting Danielle

BBY was not an easy boss, and the constant waltz of editors-in-chief made many in the industry chuckle. Among those who have left their mark in JA are Paul Bernetel (of Caribbean and Cameroonian origin), the Beninese Justin Vieyra, the Malagasy Sennen Andriamirado, the Guinean Siradiou Diallo, the Moroccan Hamid Barrada, the Lebanese Amin Maalouf (Goncourt Prize) and the late Philippe Gaillard.

All of them contributed to the success of the magazine, even if none of them doubted for a moment that they were working under BBY’s watchful eye.

There is also the role of Danielle, his wife and main collaborator. They met in November 1968 in Tunis. She was 29 years old, and her husband, the economist Mohsen Limam, who worked in the office of the Tunisia’s finance minister, had died in a plane crash, leaving her with a son, Zyad, aged three. She and BBY got married five years later, and from their union sprung Amir and Marwane.

Danielle Ben Yahmed and François Mitterrand in Paris in November 1981. © Archives Jeune Afrique

Now a Parisian newspaper, the weekly Jeune Afrique continued to evolve, marked by many successes but also by serious crises.

In 1971, a strike nearly shut it down. Between seizures, censorships and bans, its distribution has frequently been hindered by African powers resistant to criticism.

Internally, different points of view were expressed on issues and countries such as Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s Côte d’Ivoire or Thomas Sankara’s Burkina Faso. On certain topics, such as the Western Sahara or the Gulf wars, the boss would intervene with an editorial line he believed to be right.

A few bumps along the way

From 1976 to 1994, Jeune Afrique experienced its most prosperous period with a staff of nearly 150 people. Strengthened by the success of its weekly, BBY multiplied its productions. Afrique Magazine, Jeune Afrique Économie, Telex Confidentiel (a daily newsletter of confidential information), and Éditions du Jaguar (travel guides) were all launched.

Among the problems of the time, was the transfer in 1990 of Jeune Afrique Économie to Blaise Pascal Talla, Jeune Afrique‘s salesman. Ben Yahmed sold the magazine without demanding a change of title. The dispute ended in a long legal battle.

To make matters worse, BBY made a poor choice when buying TMV, a travel agency that had horrible results. Jeune Afrique was already in great financial difficulty following the devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994. Overnight, the newspaper lost half its revenue.

“I had foreseen long in advance that the CFA franc would be devalued, but I did not take enough precautions,” admitted Ben Yahmed. “I continued to go into debt. I sold everything. We couldn’t even pay the rent and salaries anymore. The sales of Jeune Afrique had dropped from 150,000 copies to less than 40,000.”

The commercial court multiplied its warning procedures, which were supposed to encourage BBY to accept a receivership or even a sale. There was no shortage of takeover offers: Elf, Havas, Vincent Bolloré… BBY refused to take them into consideration.

He didn’t hide, however, the assistance that he received, in various forms, from heads of state such as Senegal’s Abdou Diouf, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Gabon’s Omar Bongo Ondimba and the Mauritania’s Maaouyia Ould Taya, without forgetting the France’s President François Mitterrand. Not all of them were friends; not by a long shot. After a seven-year struggle, Jeune Afrique finally regained its footing, but not without having laid off three quarters of its staff. Jaguar took over the publishing of the guides.

From 2000-2001, the group started up again on a sounder footing. Good news followed, such as the reopening of the Algerian market after a quarter century of prohibition. The editorial dossiers called “Plus” were successful and became one of the main sources of revenue.

During this difficult period, but also throughout his entire career, Béchir Ben Yahmed acquired certain convictions. One of the strongest was that a handful of determined people are enough to change the course of history. An idea that undoubtedly explained his propensity to refer to a few role models, some of whose quotes were framed and hung in the corridors and meeting rooms of Jeune Afrique.

It was almost political aesthetics – it was too beautiful for politics that is based on realism and the balance of power. Sankara or Lumumba were shooting stars, they were not made to be heads of state. -BBY

“Unfortunately, I never had the honour of shaking hands with Charles de Gaulle and Nelson Mandela,” he lamented. “I would also have liked to have known Lee Kuan Yew, founder of the miracle state of Singapore, and Deng Xiaoping, a major player in the renaissance of China.”

Prestigious address

If he missed these personalities, he still rubbed shoulders with many others. Nasser, Ho Chi Minh (in Hanoi), Mobutu (in Kinshasa). . . Over the years, his home on Rue de Varenne became a prestigious address, a prized “salon”, where, with Danielle, he received leaders and French intellectuals such as Leopold Sedar Senghor and Mohamed Mzali, the prime minister of Tunisia.

The Palestinian leader Issam Sertaoui went there to negotiate in secret with senior Israeli officials. The founder of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, the Moroccan Abderrahim Bouabid, the Algerian Chérif Belkacem, the historian Charles-André Julien and Jean Daniel, his close friend and head of the Nouvel Observateur, often came for lunch or dinner.

Béchir Ben Yahmed and Leopold Sedar Senghor, at Jeune Afrique in January 1979.
© Archives Jeune Afrique

Other personalities, who met under other circumstances, also appeared in his personal pantheon: Thomas Sankara, Farhat Hached, Patrice Lumumba and Che Guevara. Revolutionaries he confessed to be “seduced by” while also questioning their choices: “I certainly would not have acted like them, but they did things that I do not know how to do, quite beautiful things,” he said with a touch of emotion, even nostalgia. “It was almost political aesthetics – it was too beautiful for politics that is based on realism and the balance of power. Sankara or Lumumba were shooting stars, they were not made to be heads of state.”

Ouattara, a friend for life

Of course, he met many heads of states. The two Tunisian presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were among the closest to him, even if neither of these relationships was a walk in the park.

But the dearest and most faithful friend without doubt has been Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Dramane Ouattara (ADO). BBY remembered perfectly his first meeting with the then chargé de mission at the Banque centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest.

BBY and Alassane Ouattara during the launch of ‘La Revue’ on 6 May 2010 in Paris © Bruno Lévy/ JA

The journalist considered himself as “a kind of elder brother” and liked to underline the similarities that united him and his friend, who was married like him “to a white woman” and with whom he said he detected at first sight “the stature of a head of state”.

He took pleasure in evoking this “trouble-free friendship” that nothing, not even ADO’s accession to power, had ever disturbed: “He is one of the rare African politicians who is a democrat and behaves like one. He never made the slightest comment to me about Jeune Afrique, even when he disagreed.”

An element that not all African leaders who crossed paths with BBY have displayed. With Houphouët, Abdou Diouf, Ben Ali, Omar Bongo Ondimba and Abdoulaye Wade, relations were not always easy. With Bokassa, Hissène Habré, Idriss Déby or Muammar Gaddafi – whose great pan-African speeches BBY qualified as “smoke and mirrors” – they were non-existent. He also met France’s presidents: Giscard, cold and distant, left him unmoved while Jacques Chirac did not inspire in him, to put it mildly, any affection.

Disappointed by François Hollande, he was interested in and curious about Emmanuel Macron, who was so young and so far from his references that he sometimes had trouble understanding him.

There remained François Mitterrand, whom BBY denied was a true friend, but with whom he maintained ongoing ties throughout his two terms in office. The first socialist president of the Fifth Republic had tried to win the support of Jeune Afrique in 1981.

“He literally cast his nets over me, to charm me. I went to see him at the Elysée Palace without a tie, after having put my bicycle away in the courtyard,” recalled Béchir Ben Yahmed.

Graphology

Michel Rocard, another figure of French socialism, was a true friend, even if the link ended up being broken. The founder of Jeune Afrique readily admitted that he was a man who functioned by successive heartbeats and heartbreaks, capable of falling out “for symbolic or secondary reasons”.

This was the case with the former leader of the Neo-Destour Mohamed Masmoudi, the lawyer Jacques Vergès, the journalist Guy Sitbon or the businessman Vincent Bolloré.

“They say I am easily offended, but I have been betrayed,” he explained when asked about the harshness with which he could talk about people who, for a time, were close to him. He used to say that the true value “of a man” was revealed by the way he left what or who he had been with; whether that be a company, a friend or a love.

His frequent use of graphology also surprised those who knew him. He had the handwritten notes of heads of state or candidates applying for Jeune Afrique analysed, and when people were surprised that such a seemingly Cartesian mind could rely on such a practice, he admitted with a laugh: “I only believe in graphological analyses when they are bad.” In fact, he said that the one done on Laurent Gbagbo in 2006 was damning, revealing “an overinflated ego, a need for power and a paranoid type of personality”.

This frankness, and very personal and assertive way of provoking people in order to gauge them, had naturally not earned Béchir Ben Yahmed only friends. Throughout its history, Jeune Afrique was the target of several attacks, four of which – in 1961, 1978, 1979 and 1986 – were quite serious.

The first were the work of the French far right, the last were certainly – even if it was difficult to obtain irrefutable evidence – orchestrated by Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, who did not appreciate the distance the weekly kept from him.

‘Philosemitism’

To build these projects, BBY relied on a few strong certainties that were sometimes confusing.

On the Palestinian question in particular, although it was a cause close to his heart, it never led him to display hostility towards Israel, contrary to many Arab opinions.

“I saw how the Jews of Djerba lived,” he explained. “I saw what happened to them during the Second World War, and from that came the need for them to find a place to call home. Then, many Jews helped us in our struggle for independence.”

Many experiences over his life helped him to define himself as a “philosemite”, while being indignant about the segregationist policy practiced by the right-wing coalitions in power in Tel Aviv.

His relationship with the great Western powers and his fascination for the so-called “emerging” countries also conditioned his reading of the world and even surprised him at times.

“When the Chinese exploded their atomic bomb in 1964, I wrote an editorial of approval, of pride,” he recounted in 2010, on the 50th anniversary of Jeune Afrique. “For the first time, a non-white power was practically alone in achieving military nuclear power through its technology. All my French friends – I will remember this for the rest of my life – including the socialist Alain Savary, said to me: ‘How can you write that Béchir? It is not possible! And yet, this is what I felt. That’s how all the people of the Third World felt. Whether China was communist or not was no longer the problem. It was our pride. And that’s impossible for a European to understand.”

Following from that, he was able to crack a joke, confessing with a laugh, “What do you expect? I have the complexes of someone from a former colony, it’s my history.”

And that history was always connected to Tunisia, on which he kept an attentive, tender and critical eye on right up until the end.

Ten years after the revolution that brought about the fall of Ben Ali, he could not help but notice the extent to which the country was bogged down, struggling to bring out the men or women capable of giving it the new drive it needed.

Kaïs Saïed, the president elected in 2019, with whom he met for the first time during an official dinner in June 2020 at the Élysée, had made a good impression on him. Béchir believed he found in him “the quiet strength of François Mitterrand” and followed his first steps of power with interest.

Bourguiba’s triumphant return to Tunis on 1 June 1955, et the journalists of ‘L’Action’ © Archives Jeune Afrique

“Today, I am still Tunisian and I feel Tunisian,” he repeated, even if he had finally resolved, after several decades, to also apply for French nationality to limit the administrative hassles. “I have never voted in France and I will never vote in France,” he hastened to add. “And when someone says to me, ‘Sir, you are of Tunisian origin’, I answer, ‘No, I am Tunisian, not of Tunisian origin’.”

The adventure of La Revue

At the age of 80, as Jeune Afrique reached its half-century mark, he handed it over to a trio made up of his sons, Amir and Marwane, and François Soudan, the editorial director.

François Soudan, Marwane and Amir Ben Yahmed at Jeune Afrique in 2008. © Bruno Levy for JA

Continuing to deliver his weekly editorials, the famous “Ce Que Je Crois” (What I believe), he gradually moved away from the newspaper to launch what he presented as his final project: La Revue.

Launched in 2003 as a sort of supplement to Jeune Afrique, he planned to make it a monthly. “The first monthly French-language generalist [magazine],” he explained at the time, immediately pointing out to Christophe Boisbouvier, the journalist who interviewed him: “As you can see, I have a tendency to embrace ambitions that exceed my means.”

Ten years later, La Revue has not achieved the great ambitions its founder had set for it, but it is still there, published bimonthly, and approaching its 100th issue. Faithful to an editorial line summarised in a few phrases such as “the centre of the world is everywhere” or “the world as you’ve never read it”, the magazine that covers international news. According to BBY himself, it has a tendency to privilege subjects that reflect his own interests: US politics; the rise of big emerging countries; alternative energies and electric cars; the history of the 20th century; political Islam; Iran and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

“It is an editorial semi-success and a commercial semi-failure,” BBY noted without bitterness. He was fond of this kind of ambivalent formula. He would often lean on this type of wording when he advanced an opinion that he knew was rife with controversy: “I believe, rightly or wrongly, but in my opinion not wrongly…”

An eternal life

Jeune Afrique, meanwhile, continued to live its life without him. Even if the magazine was no longer the one he had founded in 1960, he said he had no regrets. “My sons Amir and Marwane now have all the power,” he said. “Another Jeune Afrique will be born from their reflection.”

He did, however, allow himself to offer them a final piece of advice, adapted from the famous Serenity Prayer: “Have the will to change all that you can change, the wisdom to accept what you cannot change, the intelligence to distinguish between what you can change and what you must accept.”

A spiritual BBY? “I am of Muslim culture. I know the Koran. I know who the Prophet is. I know what Islam is, I was raised in that religion. I was a believer, a devout and practicing believer. I am no longer a believer. Let’s say that today, I would call myself an agnostic,” he explained. And even though he said he had turned away from prayer, had no intention of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca and believed less and less in eternal life, he confessed: “I have not completely lost faith. I am not absolutely sure that there is nothing ‘after’.”

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