1903–30: Early life
Bourguiba was born in Monastir, the eighth and final son of Ali Bourguiba and Fatouma Khefacha. Bourguiba's official birthdate is 3 August 1903, though he stated he was likely born a year earlier, on 3 August 1902, or possibly 1901. Bourguiba's mother gave birth to him when she was 40, which, according to Bourguiba, was a source of great shame for her. His father, who was 53 years old, wondered whether he could raise him properly. Despite financial hardship, Ali Bourguiba gave great importance to the education of his children. He was enrolled in the army by general Ahmed Zarrouk, and spent nineteen years of his life campaigning before retiring. Eager to avoid such a fate for his last child, he decided to ensure Habib obtained his Certificat d'études primaires, which would dispense him from military service, just like his elder sons. Around the time Bourguiba was born, his father became councilman, and was, therefore, part of the notables of the city. This allowed him to improve both his financial and social situation and permitted to provide a modern education future for his last son, just like his brother.
Ali Bourguiba surrounded by his sons Mohamed, Ahmed, M'hamed, Mahmoud and Habib
Habib Bourguiba grew up among women, as his brother was in Tunis and his father was elderly. He spent his days with his mother, grandmother and sister, Aïcha and Nejia, which permitted him to notice the casual household chores of women and their inequality with men. After starting his elementary education in Monastir, his father sent him to Tunis in September 1907, when he was 5, to pursue his studies at the Sadiki primary school. The young boy was profoundly affected by the separation from his mother at that early age. At the time of his arrival, the city was struggling against the protectorate, an early phase of the Tunisian national movement led by Ali Bach Hamba. Meanwhile, Habib settled in the wealthy neighbourhood of Tourbet el Bey in the medina of Tunis, where his brother, M'hamed, rented a lodging on Korchani Street. As the school year began, his brother enrolled him in Sadiki College where the superintendent described him as "turbulent but studious".
The young Habib spent his vacations in Monastir, aiding others with chores. At the end of the holiday season, he returned to Tunis where, after classes, he used to wander around in the streets. On Thursdays, he watched the bey chair the weekly seals ceremony. The Jellaz demonstrations of 1911 and the resulting execution of Manoubi Djarjar that followed influenced his nascent political opinions. Bourguiba earned his certificat d'études primaires in 1913, which greatly satisfied his father. Bourguiba avoided military service, and, like his elders, was admitted as an internal in Sadiki College to pursue his secondary studies freely. His mother died in November 1913, when he was 10 years old.
Teenage years and secondary studies
When World War I started in September 1914, Bourguiba moved out from his brother's house and settled in the dormitories of Sadiki College. Budgetary restrictions, enacted in order to support the war effort, contributed to malnutrition and inadequate supplies. These circumstances led students to protest, and Bourguiba soon came to participate. He admired Habib Jaouahdou, a student who told others about national struggles beyond the walls of high school. Jaouahdou proposed them to welcome Abdelaziz Thâalbi when he returned from exile, Bourguiba being part of the welcoming Sadiki delegation. In addition, the funerals of nationalist leader
Bechir Sfar in Jellaz had also impacted him, as he travelled with his father. At school, one of his professors taught him the art of French writing and, indirectly, Arab literature. Despite that, his grades were low; Bourguiba did not pass his Arabic patent in 1917, which would have allowed him to get an administrative function. The headmaster permitted him to restart his sixth and final year of high school, in 1919–20. But the winter season and aforementioned malnutrition severely worsened his health, and he was hospitalized following his primary infection. Accordingly, he was obliged to abandon his studies and remain at the hospital.
In order to heal, Bourguiba spent nearly two years living with older brother Mohamed, medic at the local hospital of Kef who also happened to be a strong modernist and advocating for secularism. Mohamed lived with an Italian nurse who welcomed young Habib properly and had an important part in his improvement, by "filling in his emotional void", according to Souhayr Belhassen and Sophie Bessis. His journey in there, which lasted 21 months from January 1920, was a major turning point in his life. The inhabitants of the city helped him integrate: He learned how to play cards, discussed military strategies, got interested in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and also visited his other brother, Ahmed, in Thala where he learned horse riding. He also participated in theatrical activities. Bourguiba rehearsed with his brother, who had a passion for theater and performed on stage. The foundation of the Destour party while he was in Kef, increased Bourguiba's interest in Tunisian nationalism. He expressed his will to pursue his secondary studies and thus, study law in France, so he could struggle against the colonial power. The family council that was held to discuss this matter was a complete failure, his brothers considering him as "unsuccessful" and were not ready to finance his studies. Only his thirty years old single brother, Mahmoud, promised to aid him. With his support, Bourguiba was enrolled in Lycée Carnot of Tunis, in classe de seconde, because he was too weak to study in classe de première.
In high school, Bourguiba achieved high grades in Mathematics with the help of the new teacher that taught him. He obtained excellent results and ended up choosing Philosophy section, after passing the first part of baccalaureate. He also became friends with Tahar Sfar and Bahri Guiga. The group was called the "Sahelian Trio". He often went to libraries and showed interest in history even though, sometimes, he skipped classes, mainly on Friday afternoons, to attend Habiba Msika's performance of L'Aiglon. He was soon marked with the inequalities between French and Tunisians. In 1922, when Naceur Bey threatened to abdicate because of resident-general Lucien Saint's maneuvers, public opinion decided to mobilize for this nationalist bey. On 22 April 1922, Bourguiba was part of the protesters to support the monarch. Influenced by that event, he used to participate in debates with his friends and got interested in political and philosophical learning, supporting socialism. In 1923–24, his final year was fundamental as he had a tight contest with another French classmate, in order to obtain a scholarship to study in Paris. He also benefited from the support of his brother Mahmoud, who promised to send him 50 francs per month. In 1924, he sat for his baccalaureate and obtained outstanding marks with honours. At the end of exams, Bourguiba embarked on an old boat, Le Oujda, in order to pursue his studies in France and discover the colonial power.
Higher education in Paris
When he arrived in Paris, Bourguiba settled in Saint-Séverin hotel, near Place Saint-Michel, where he occupied a room located on the sixth floor for 150 francs per month. Having had some hard times, his problems were resolved as he obtained a scholarship of 1800 francs, payable in two installments, and enrolled in Paris law School, in the Sorbonne to attend psychology and literature classes. Aware that he came to France to "arm himself intellectually against France", he devoted himself to law and to the discovery of French civilization. Bourguiba often participated in political debates, read newspapers and followed closely the evolution of French politics during the Third Republic. Sensitive to the ideas of Leon Blum, following the Congress of Tours, he was opposed to the Bolsheviks and got interested in Gandhi's process to transform the Indian national Congress in a powerful mass organization. In addition, he showed a great interest in his Tunisian fellow, Mahmoud El Materi.
Bourguiba wearing his lawyer dress in 1927
After vacations spent between Mahdia and Monastir, Bourguiba returned to Paris for the start of the 1925–26 school year, worried about the nationalist struggle in his country. His conditions improved as he moved in the University Campus in Jourdan boulevard, where he lodged in room number 114. The sponsor, Taïeb Radhouane, sent him through the association Les Amis de l'étudiant, the registration fees to register for Paris Institute of Political Studies, where he started to attend public finance classes. He also obtained a financial aid from his friend and protector, Mounier-Pillet, who was his former teacher in Monastir. The same year, his friends Sfar and Guiga, joined him while he was tutoring a young Sfaxian boy, Mohamed Aloulou, sent by his parents to sit for the baccalaureate exam in Lycée Louis-le-Grand. One day of 1925, while tidying his room, Bourguiba found the address of a woman his protector recommended him to meet: Mathilde Lefras, a 35 years old widow whose husband died during the war. He met her for the first time in her apartment, on the first floor of a building in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. She invited him to enter and asked him to tell his story. Touched by his background, she asked to see him once again, and, in the upcoming months, invited him to move in with her. Since then, he gave away his room in the campus and settled with Mathilde. With this new way of life, Bourguiba distanced himself from the other students but also the Tunisian struggle, as a strong repression started back at the country.
During the summer of 1926, Bourguiba returned to Monastir but did not show any interest in political issues in his country. His father died in September and he received a telegram from Mathilde, announcing that she was pregnant. This situation and the parenting responsibility that lay ahead, worried him. Thus, he decided to raise the child, despite his friend's advice to abandon the baby and break up with Mathilde. This pregnancy reassured him as he thought he was sterile. But the relationship of the couple worsened to a point that Bourguiba left the house to sleep at his friends' place, back at the campus. On 9 April 1927, Mathilde gave birth to a boy, whom they named Jean Habib. They moved into another apartment in Bagneux, in the Parisian suburbs. Bourguiba, sick at the time, had to prepare his final exams, which he sat for a month after the birth of his son. He obtained respectively a bachelor's degree in law and the higher degree of political studies from the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
Early adult life and professional career
In August 1927, Bourguiba who was 26 at the time, returned to Tunisia, with his girlfriend, his son, Habib Jr. but also a deep knowledge of French politics during the Third Republic. His journey in France had influenced his thinking with the liberal values of the social-radical secular country, shared earlier by his brother Mohamed. Following his come back in Tunisia, he married Mathilde, while Mahmoud Laribi was his best man and settled in Tunis. At the time, he was not interested in politics but in his professional career, every debuting lawyer having to do a three-year traineeship under the supervision of another experienced lawyer. For nearly a year (October 1927 to October 1928), he worked for Mr. Cirier, who dismissed him after six weeks, then for Mr. Pietra and Scemama, who did not pay him for two months and charged him with writing responsibilities. Bouguiba then resigned to work for Mr. Salah Farhat, chairman of the Destour party, until Mr. Sebault hired him for 600 francs per month, which led Bourguiba to work for him for an additional year than the three mandatory ones.
Picture of Bourguiba, lawyer in Bab Souika, circa 1931, after his return to Tunisia.
In that context of colonial oppression, Bourguiba felt the effects of inequality, mainly after he spent a whole year of unemployment. This inequality led him to discuss these matters with both Tunisian and French friends, who agreed with the necessity to start a reform process aiming to get Tunisia to resemble France, that was, liberal, modern and secular. On 8 January 1929, while replacing his brother who could not attend a conference held by Habiba Menchari, an unveiled woman who advocated gender equality, Bourguiba defended Tunisian personality by opposing Menchari's position to rid women of their veils. Bourguiba responded saying that Tunisia was threatened by forfeiture of personality and that it had to be preserved until the country got emancipated. This statement surprised liberals like the French unionist Joachim Durel. The controversy that followed opposed him to Bourguiba for nearly a month, Bourguiba writing in L'Étendard tunisien while Durel responded in Tunis socialiste.
The year 1930 was the peak of French colonization in North Africa, which led France to celebrate the centenary of the French conquest of Algeria, by organizing a eucharistic congress in Tunisia. On this occasion, millions of Europeans invaded the capital city and went to the Saint-Lucien de Carthage cathedral, disguised as crusaders, which humiliated and revolted the people who protested against what they considered a violation of an Islam land by Christendom. The protesters, strongly repressed, were brought to Justice and some of them had Bourguiba for lawyer, as he did not participate in the event. He also remained neutral when Tahar Haddad was dismissed of his duties of notary. He estimated at that moment, that the main goals were political, while other problems of society are secondary, insisting on the Tunisian personality and identity that had to affirm, declaring: "Let us be what we are before becoming what we will".