The youngest of eight brothers and sisters, Habib Bourguiba was born on August 3, 1903 in Monastir (100 miles south of Tunis). Habib Bourguiba attended school in Tunis at the famous Collège Sadiki and then at the Lycée Carnot. He obtained his Baccalaureat in 1924 and went to the University of Paris to study law and political science. While in Paris, the adult Bourguiba met Mathilde Lorrain, his lodger at that time, whom he married in 1927, and who bore him on 9 April 1927 his only son, Habib Bourguiba, Jr.
The same year Bourguiba graduated in law and political science, he went back with his newly formed family to Tunisia where he got immediately involved in the political arena by joining two newspapers in 1928: l’Etendard Tunisien (The Tunisian Flag) and Sawt At-Tunisi (The Tunisian Voice). In 1931, the French colonial authorities prosecuted him for his alleged “Incitement to racial hatred”. Subsequent to this, Bourguiba launched a militant newspaper L’Action Tunisienne, laying the ground for strong action against the colonial power.
As a member of the Executive Committee of the Destour Party, Bourguiba found himself less in tuned with the mainstream party vision, which culminated in the Monastir incident of 8 August 1933 relative to the burial of a naturalized Tunisian citizen. Bourguiba was pushed to resign from the committee, which led to the creation of the Neo Destour Party in Ksar Hellal on 2 March 1934 and with Bourguiba as the Secretary General of the Political Bureau. From that moment, Bourguiba set out to crisscross the country to try to enroll the majority of Tunisians from the countryside and thus create a more popular base to his newly formed party so much so he managed in a couple of years to set up more than 400 branches (cells) of the Neo Destour....
In September 1934, the colonial representative (Resident General) Mr Peyrouton ordered that Bourguiba be confined to Borj-Leboeuf, a remote place on the border of the Sahara desert, until April 1936 when he was released with most of his companions. After the famous popular uprising of 9 April 1938, where colonial troops opened fire on demonstrators killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, Bourguiba was once again imprisoned on 10 June 1939 along with a group of militants on charges of plotting against the state security and incitement to civil war.
At the outbreak of WWII, Bourguiba was transferred to the Teboursouk prison and then in May 1940, to the Haut Fort Saint Nicholas near Marseilles until 18 November 1942 where he was taken to Fort Montluc in Lyon. After which he ended up in Fort Vancia in Ain until the Germans released him and took him to Chalons-sur-Saône. In a manoeuvre by the Germans and Italian Fascist regime to gain Bourguiba’s alliance, he was received with full honours in Rome, in January 1943, but to no avail; the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry tried to obtain a statement in their favour ; on the eve of his return home, he accepted to deliver a message to the Tunisian people by “Radio Bari”, cautioning them against “all the appetites”. In his return to Tunis, on 7 April 1943 he made sure that the message he had sent from his prison in August 1942 reached the general population as well as the militants, that Germany was bound to lose the war and that Tunisia’s independence would only come after the victory of the Allies. He emphasized his position by putting it as a question of life or death for Tunisia.
After the end of WWII, Bourguiba, after many sterile efforts to open a dialogue with the French authorities, came to the conclusion that the Tunisian cause had to be brought to the attention of the world opinion. In March 1945, he left Sfax secretly, on a small fisherman’s boat, heading to Libya, and from there, on foot and on camel’s back, he managed to reach Cairo, which he used as a base for his international activity. He took part in the setting up of the Greater Maghreb Office. He travelled continuously to the different Arab countries, members of the newly born Arab League, Europe, (Switzerland, Belgium), to Asia, (Pakistan, India, Indonesia) and USA to promote the Tunisian aspiration for independence and met with high and influential personalities to help the Tunisian cause. On 8 September 1949, Bourguiba returned to Tunis to reorganise the Party and resume his direct contact policy with the population by visiting small towns and villages throughout the country.
In April 1950, he laid out a seven-point program aiming at ending the system of direct administration in Tunisia and restoring full Tunisian sovereignty as a final step to independent statehood. In 1951, he embarked on a second round of trips to promote his program at the international level. In light of the French Government refusal to concede to national claims, Bourguiba toughened his stand and called for unlimited resistance and general insurrection. This tactic led to his arrest on 18 January 1952 and his confinement in Tabarka, then Remada then in La Galite and finally Groix Island at the Ferte Castle.
Pierre Mendès-France became French prime minister in 1954; his positions on France’s colonial policies opened the door to Tunisian home-rule. 1 June 1955 saw the return of Bourguiba. The “Internal Autonomy Agreement” was a big step to total independence. After several arduous negotiations, independence was proclaimed on 20 March 1956, with Habib Bourguiba as president of the “National Constituent Assembly”, and Head of the Government.
On 25 July 1957, a republic was proclaimed abolishing the monarchy and investing Bourguiba with powers of President of the Republic. Bourguiba's long and powerful presidency was formative for the creation of the Tunisian state and nation.
After a failed experiment with socialist economic policies, Bourguiba embarked from the early 1970s on an economically liberal model of development spearheaded by his Prime Minister, Hédi Nouira for a ten-year period. This witnessed the flourishing of privately owned business and the consolidation of the private sector.
On the international front, Bourguiba took a pro-Western position in the Cold War, but with a fiercely defended independent foreign policy that challenged the leadership of the Arab League by Egyptian President Nasser. In March 1965, he delivered the historical Jericho Speech advocating a fair and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis based on the UN 1947 Resolution that created two states. In 1979 Tunis became the headquarters of the Arab League after the Camp David Accords and in 1982, it welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) leadership in Tunis, after it had been ousted from Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.
In March 1975, the Tunisian National Assembly voted Bourguiba president for life, as an exceptional measure. In the 1980s Bourguiba made efforts to combat both poverty and a rising Islamist opposition, spearheaded by the Nahda party.
On November 7th, 1987, Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared President Habib Bourguiba impeached on medical grounds and constitutionally replaced him as President of Tunisia, on the basis of a strict lecture of Article 57.
Bourguiba remained the President of Tunisia until 7 November 1987, when his newly-appointed Prime minister and constitutional successor impeached him, claiming old age and health reasons as certified by his own doctors.
President Bourguiba lived in Monastir under government protection in the Governor's Mansion for a period of 13 years until his death on 6 April 2000. He was buried with national honors in Monastir in the mausoleum he built on 8 April 2000.
In 1925, Habib Bourguiba met his future wife, Mathilde Lorrain, in Paris while he was studying law at the Sorbonne. She converted to Islam and chose the name Moufida Bourguiba. She bore him one son: Habib Bourguiba jr. in April 1927. In a second wedding, he married the influential Wassila Ben Ammar and adopted a daughter, Hajer Bourguiba.